Derek says, “I have previously published with Owl Hollow Press and Vulture Bones magazine, and pseudonymously with New Smut Project and Less Than Three Press; future publications are coming from Calyx (AUS), and Feral Cat Publishers. I write in a wide variety of genres.”
by Derek Des Anges
“I think you should go and clear out the shed,” Maggie said from the hallway outside of Alice’s room.
“Oh, you think I should go and clear out the shed?” Alice asked, not looking up from her thesis. “What’s brought this on?”
“It smells like two foxes were in the throes of passion, got hit by lightning, and have spent the last century festering in their charred skeletons to produce the single worst stench in the known universe,” Maggie said, with all her habitual grandeur and melodrama. “And I can smell it from my bedroom window.”
“And I have to do it because?” Alice asked, still half-lost in footnotes. She looked like she’d been thrust into her clothes without her consent and like the laptop was causing her serious physical pain, which was about normal for Alice in an editing session.
“Lowell said he’s going to puke if he does it.”
“Ah, masculine ineptitude arises at the most convenient of times for him,” Alice muttered, closing her laptop. “Why not make this a team effort?”
The shed stood behind the house like a lone tooth in a once-populated smile, with a good six feet of space either side of it before the tall creosoted fences closed in. Ordinarily it looked like it was trying to save seats for two late-arriving shed friends, but now, with the funk emanating through the old stained wood, it seemed more like the fences were trying to lean away from the source of the stink.
“Right,” said Lowell, from behind Alice and Maggie, “I’m warning you, my gag reflex is powerful and not to be trifled with.”
“That is not what you tell your Grindr dates,” Alice muttered, but she took a few hesitant steps towards the shed all the same, barefoot and grim-faced under the gray sky.
“My eyes are watering,” Maggie commented, to the world or at least back garden at large. “People are going to think we’ve murdered someone. Or incinerated a skunk colony.”
“I thought it smelled more like we were trying to hybridize garlic and weed,” Lowell said, indistinctly, as he tried to bury his face in his own armpit. “Either way, they’re going to call the feds if we don’t do something about this. Alice?”
Alice had almost reached the shed door. She raised her hand in front of her, as if trying to ward off the smell, and turned her face away. “Who was in here last?”
Maggie and Lowell looked at each other and shrugged.
Alice’s fingers brushed the latched handle, but it was no good—the reek from inside the shed permeating the wood itself hit her like a wave: she staggered back, gagging explosively.
“That,” Maggie said, squinting at the shed through tears, “is one hell of a thing.”
“I’d rather be tear-gassed,” Alice wheezed, doubled over, “than deal with this again.”
Back in the kitchen with the windows firmly closed, all three housemates stared out across the expanse of garden—all twenty feet of it—to the shed, as they reviewed their options. Alice, who had more-or-less shoved her entire face in a cup of black coffee in an attempt to chase away the memory of the smell, gave the occasional shudder.
“We could,” Lowell said, thoughtfully. “Now, don’t all shout at once, because this might sound a bit mad, but we could just… ignore it and hope that it goes away?”
“I’m not sure we can ignore it,” Maggie pointed out. “Much more of this and the neighbors are going to complain.”
“They’re on holiday in Tenerife,” Lowell said, by way of consolation.
Maggie waved a frustrated hand at the shed. “They’ll be able to smell it from there pretty soon!”
“Burn it,” Alice suggested, in a tone of voice that said she wasn’t entirely joking. “Just tip petrol over it, burn the bloody thing to the ground, claim it on the insurance. Whatever it takes. Get it over with.”
“Um,” said Maggie, clearly unhappy to be the designated voice of reason when she’d far rather be declaiming more florid melodrama. “No.”
Three hours later, after dinner and when the light was falling over the lone tooth of the shed and making it look almost as ominous as it smelled, Lowell said: “I suppose we can’t burn it. There might be something alive in there.”
“If it smells like that, all the more reason to burn it,” Alice muttered, from in front of the TV. “It might be some kind of interdimensional monstrosity.”
“I think you need a break from your thesis,” said Lowell, offering her a crisp. “It sounds like it’s getting to you.”
“I think you should mind your own business,” Alice said sulkily, rejecting the crisp. “And go burn the shed.”
“Alice,” Maggie sighed. “If there’s something alive in there that’s animal cruelty. What if it’s injured? Septic. Maybe that’s the problem, maybe there’s an animal that’s got some sort of horrible rotting disease like, uh, necrosis. Or gangrene. Or death farts. What if it’s someone’s dog?”
“If my dog smelled like that I’d chuck it off a cliff,” Alice complained. “I don’t think animals can smell like that while they’re still alive.”
“Alice!” Lowell said, apparently shocked enough to drop his crisps. “Don’t joke about stuff like that.”
“Look me in the eyes and tell me you think something that stinks that badly has any chance of survival,” Alice said steadfastly, glaring at the TV. Unfortunately for them all, the TV chose that exact moment to advertise a room freshener plug-in. Alice swore at it with feeling and picked up the box of tissues from the arm of the sofa.
“Whatever,” Maggie said, hastening to prevent the argument before it could start. “We can’t burn the thing down now, and without checking what’s inside. It’s nearly dark. Someone’ll see the flames and call the police, and Lowell will go to prison forever and you won’t finish your thesis. Let’s just… wait until morning and go in. Together.”
After a fretful night’s sleep, the contents of the house at the end of the terrace wrapped their mouths and noses up in whatever they had to hand—scarves, bandannas, and in Lowell’s case, a t-shirt that advertised a band tour that had happened before he was born—and crept down to the shed before breakfast.
As all three were students, this was still after their neighbors had left for work but, as Maggie explained, it was the thought that counted.
“We can do this,” she said, as they stood at the far end of the garden like soldiers awaiting the order to go over the top and face certain death. “It’s just a shed.”
“That’s a very convincing speech,” said Alice, who hadn’t combed her hair yet and looked like an angry cockatoo. “I will remember it as I die of asphyxiation.”
“I can’t smell anything,” Lowell said, cautiously, as they edged closer.
“Your t-shirt is probably carrying far worse stenches around in it. It’s all… mottled. It looks like someone died wearing it,” Maggie pointed out. The shirt in question was extremely faded and a little torn.
“Well, yeah…” Lowell blinked, touching the hem of the shirt as it dangled below his chin. “It’s vintage. That’s why I bought it.”
“He’s not actually wrong though,” said Alice, from behind her bandanna. “We’ve nailed this. I can’t smell anything from behind this. Or we’ve just become anosmic from the trauma of yesterday.”
“An-what?” Lowell whispered to Maggie. “Is this like the thing where she doesn’t have sex?”
“It means not able to smell anything,” said Alice, coolly, without turning around. “You’ll be happy to learn that I’m not deaf.”
They shuffled closer, as if they were approaching a deadly animal. The blameless suburban shed with its blanketing of old spiderwebs, dents from incautious footballs, and the odd patch of roof moss from the ever-present Welsh rain, stood before them and loomed in the most ominous manner a shed could loom.
“I can smell something,” said Lowell with a deep, troubled frown.
“Yes,” Alice said, patiently, “that’s why we’re going to burn this—shed—to the ground.”
“No,” Lowell said, lifting this t-shirt. He gave a short, experimental sniff.
“Lowell, don’t—” Maggie blurted from behind him. “Oh my god. You’ll die. You’ll actually physically die.”
“No,” he repeated, and sniffed again. “It smells… nice… actually?”
“Have you lost your bloody mind?” Alice hissed.
“Smell it for yourself,” Lowell insisted, removing the t-shirt from his face and leaning towards the shed, perplexed. He sniffed harder. “It… wow. That’s… really nice?”
“Oh, you’re trying to trick me into taking off the scarf? So I can have my lungs fumigated with the Pong That Perfume Forgot?” Maggie grumbled, giving him a shove. “Not funny.”
“No,” Alice said, lowering her bandanna. “He can’t act this well.”
“Hey,” said Lowell, offended, “but also thank you. But hey, again, anyway.”
Alice also sniffed, raising her head like an animal. “Well,” she concluded, after a long, almost giddy minute. “Now I definitely have to know what’s in there. That smells like ripe peaches and summer afternoons.”
“I thought it smelled like lavender and sex,” Lowell said, but she’d already put her hand on the door handle and rattled it twice.
“It smells like evenings at the beach and coconut oil,” Maggie interjected a little wistfully, “Like a really good wrap party but in, oh, Barbados or something. Rum. Ozone.”
The door stuck. Alice kicked it a couple of times.
“It opens outwards,” Maggie sighed, throwing out a useless hand to stop her, “like a cupboard. Alice—Do not—Alice don’t kick the bloody door in.”
She was all too used to Alice, who instead of drama usually got a little too into lateral thinking; the security deposit was probably already all gone.
Alice reluctantly released the shed door for Maggie to open, which she did after a little more rattling, by counterintuitively leaning on the thing until she heard the latch click, and then pulling on it.
“Alright, smartar—” Alice began, but the retort died on her lips.
“Whoa,” said Lowell, which was actually a pertinent observation.
A waft of overpowering near-saccharine scent boiled out of the shed and engulfed them like a crashing wave. All three closed their eyes, and when they opened them again the contents of the hitherto-unopened and windowless shed presented themselves like the will-reading of a dead hoarder.
“Yikes,” Maggie said, releasing the door handle. “That’s a lot of crap.”
It was however mostly the usual crap: a dead bicycle, minus most of the paint, the handlebars, and any kind of functional tires; a disembowelled lawn mower of a model which had stopped being made before they were born; three different kinds of storm lamp; garden shears so rusty they looked like an art installation; string; a nail-and-screw organizer unit which didn’t deserve the name “organizer”; flowerpots, mostly broken; some bird egg shells, spider corpses, the skeleton of some small mammal, some extremely alive woodlice; more string; Mr Juke’s Miracle Grow Formula in a bottle the size of home brewing kit; a home brewing kit; even more string.
The obvious exception, as far as anyone could make out, was the enormous tangle of etiolated vines which branched out from bonelike tendrils into fine white filaments, botanical hairs, that seemed to tie the entire mess together via the open neck of Mr Juke’s Miracle Grow Formula, and the sodding enormous pale purple bloom like an unfurling tea rose slap bang in the center of it all.
Each petal had the same mesmeric iridescence of a tropical butterfly’s wing, and it smelled heavenly.
“I think that’s… probably our culprit,” Lowell suggested, pointing at the bloom. It was larger than his head.
“So what was the stench beforehand?” Maggie asked. The flower was also bigger than her head, hair included.
“Who gives a shit,” Alice grumbled, pushing past them to stare at the flower. “It’s gone now.”
She extended her hand over the junk to touch one of the hypnotically beautiful petals, then another.
The massive flower swayed slightly at her touch.
“I think we should just like… lock the shed back up and leave it alone,” Maggie said, after a long, contemplative minute. “And you should stop… doing that to it. It’s obscene. You look like you’re. Uh.”
“Mmm,” Alice agreed, ruffling the remainder of the petals.
“Alice,” Lowell said. “Breakfast?”
Four hours later Alice burst into Maggie’s room with her hood over her head and without knocking.
“Hey,” Maggie objected, looking up from her phone. “We talked about this.”
“Lowell!” Alice called, over her shoulder. She had her hands behind her back.
“No, this is my room—” Maggie complained, and stopped. She sniffed experimentally. “You smell really nice? Is this a new perfume? Do you even wear perfume?”
Lowell poked his head out of the third bedroom. “I was—”
“Guys,” Alice said, ignoring both Maggie’s passing annoyance and Lowell’s sleepy bewilderment, “we have a problem.”
It was a sentence guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of any house-sharer. It was a sentence that preceded blocked toilets, collapsed ceilings, or detonated refrigerators. It was a landlord-calling kind of sentence.
“Hey,” Lowell said, from the corridor, “why have you got your plates up here with you? I thought you had breakfast in the kitchen for once?”
With a flourish like a magician yanking a bunch of dyed-feather flowers from a battered hat, Alice produced from behind her back a piece of crockery and waved the breakfast bowl into Maggie’s room and her mug into Lowell’s face—one piece of crockery either side of the door frame, like the answer to some riddle no one had asked.
Both the cup and the bowl were covered in white filaments. The filaments were budding.
“Oh,” said Lowell.
Alice dropped both pieces of crockery—to a yell from Maggie—and they bounced, rather than smashing, already too swaddled in filaments to mind the fall. With a second, wilder flourish, she produced her bandanna from her back pocket and whipped it inside and outside of the room like a distress signal.
A small iridescent purple flower head bobbed wildly on it.
“I see,” said Maggie, boggling at it. She pointed at the flower, then at the plates, then back at Alice again, uncharacteristically lost for words. “That’s…”
“They’re everywhere,” Alice said, with considerable patience. “They’re in my room. They’re up the stairs. They’re on the toilet seat. They’re—” she pulled down her hood, “in my bloody hair.”
A large, beautiful, glorious-smelling blossom curled out of her hair like the world’s most expensive and perfect hair clip. The effect was lessened somewhat by the long white ghostly filaments which were beginning to reach down the side of her face.
“Shit,” said Maggie.
When Harri Thomas gave in after a week of confusing phone calls from various letting agencies representing neighboring properties to his, and went to view one of the student houses he owned, he stopped in his tracks at the end of the street almost as soon as he’d got out of his car.
A heavy smoker for twenty years before the doctors got onto him and pointed out this was the stuff that heart attacks were made of, Harri had only recently begun regaining his sense of smell, and now all that seemed worth it: the most incredible waft of perfume came to him on the stiff western breeze and filled his lungs with something that reminded him of the sweet shops he’d lurked in during his youth. He remembered sticking a couple of licorice sweets in his pocket on the way out, once. His mum had left a slipper-shaped imprint on his arse for half a day when she found out.
“Bugger me,” he said, aloud. “That can’t have been what all the fuss was for, now.”
He passed the neighboring properties, gray with old grime and the muting effect of the ever-present hanging rain, and as he reached the front of his own property the scent grew stronger.
“Oh,” he said, when he reached the gate, “I see.”
The front of the house was a mass of beautiful but definitely against-contract flowers. They ranged in size from mere pennies to hub-caps to bin-lids. They spanned colors from pale lavender through to deep imperial purple and that weird goth sort of color his youngest daughter had insisted on dying her hair and half the bloody bathroom towels. The colors shifted as he stepped inside, like the sheen of oil on a puddle.
The aroma was overwhelming. He found that, nice as it was, he wanted to pull the collar of his fleece up around his nose and mouth like he was passing that Lush shop in town. It was just too much.
But Harri had tenants who were causing a bother to their neighbors and a job to do, so he unlocked the front door and stepped into a jungle.
Tangles of white filaments and pale, sickly-looking leaves spilled along the hallway, and up the bannisters. They burst through the kitchen door, climbed the lintels, engulfed the light fittings.
“Oh, this is going to be a nightmare to have cleaned,” he sighed, already mentally withholding the security deposit. “What the bloody hell are they playing at?”
The only people who could answer that, he knew, were the students themselves. He set about finding them.
No one in the hall: just rotting, unopened mail.
No one in the kitchen, just the hum of the still-running fridge.
No one in the sitting-room. The TV was on, showing Rownd A Rownd. No one in their right mind watched that on purpose.
No one in the lad’s room. The bathroom door stood open: the room empty, shampoo bottles scattered.
Harri hesitated and knocked on the door of the other lass’s rooms.
He waited to the count of twenty, so’s if there was anyone in there getting up to the old whatsit, they had a chance to get decent or tell him to bugger off away and wait downstairs.
There was no answer.
Perhaps they were asleep, he thought. Probably stoned or drunk or on bath salts or whatever it was students did that made them wreck his properties every term, now. High on, oh, some sort of video thing. A TikTok. Still, he had to have a word, didn’t he?
Having reasoned this out, Harri put his not inconsiderable weight forward and leaned on the door.
It resisted, but gave when he rattled the handle.
He put his hand to his mouth and said, very quietly in the back of his throat, “Oh… shit.”
In the bedroom, which scarcely resembled a bedroom at all—huge fat white creepers lining it like bones in an ossuary, all stacked up over each other—three completely bare skeletons sat at the center of a tangle of roots, tethered to the festering carpet.
A single, beautiful, fragrant purple flower grew in the eye socket of the nearest skull, and Harri had the overwhelming urge, just to see if it was real, to touch it.
Copyright 2020 by Derek Des Anges