Halloween Challenge Honorable Mention
Our first date was at a quaint restaurant place in the Village. He was fit and tall, but not too tall. Of course, when you’re a hair above five-two, everyone is tall. Black hair, dark eyes, and very kissable lips. He dressed in a smart, black, retro-chic suit. Appropriate for a first date; an outfit that said, ‘I’m trying, but not too hard.’ He paid. Took the check as soon as it arrived; it was obviously not up for debate. He was a perfect gentleman. None of that, however, is what stood out the most for me.
The thing I initially noticed about Vincent was his smile. Wide, lots of teeth. He virtually glowed at the sight of me. The aspect of him that lingers with me most is the way he smells.
I’ve been on tons of first dates, last dates may be more apropos, and it’s amazing the number of guys that either try too hard or not at all. I’d say the end-of-workday b.o. was the worst, but then I once had a train wreck with a guy who wore a cheap, spray-on cologne. His pungency was enough to ruin a good meal.
No. Vincent smelled citrusy, like lemons. There was also a tinge of salt and an ever-so-subtle hint of sourness. And his breath always smelled of peppermint.
I am drawn to smell, but I am not sure why. But, Vincent, always Vincent, never Vince; it sounds too…too…just too much something I DID NOT want to date, smelled wonderful. Sexy. Alive!
He told me he was a procurement agent for a small family business in his hometown. Usually, he was in the city for a day, two max. Oh, sure we “slept together” we’ve just never slept together. He always needed to get back to his hometown. Family always called.
This time, Vincent had asked me to accompany him back home. To meet his family. I was full of nervous-excited anticipation.
On the drive out of the city, I ask Vincent what his family is like. He doesn’t answer. He seems on edge, as if he is afraid to move lest he spook me. A hunter waiting in a blind.
Any further pressing by me about his family meets with a “you’ll see” and “it will be obvious when you meet them.” I assume he feels the same nervous-excited anticipation as I do. The uncomfortable silence that follows my inquisition is short-lived. The beauty of the countryside erases any sorrowful thoughts.
People look to Spring for a resurrection of the world. I always prefer Autumn when the foliage changes from a monochromatic green to a kaleidoscope of orange, yellow, and red. And the air, ah, the air, smells crisp, sharp. The musky smell that accompanies piles of fallen, decaying leaves always reminds me of my youth. It was when I felt most alive.
I smell Vincent’s hometown before I see it. Sulfur, akin to rotten eggs, assails my nostrils. He says that his town, that of the now-abandoned corner store, hollowed-out mills, vacant soda jerk (yeah, he actually said ‘soda jerk’), and ‘one light that always flashes yellow’, rotted when the population died out.
“What is that stench?” I ask him.
“Stench?” he replies.
“Smells like something died?”
“I guess I’m just used to it,” he says, uttering a forced laugh.
We drive on in silence for a short while when I catch my first sight of his hometown. Nestled between two ridges, I can almost imagine this as a picturesque place to spend a childhood. Almost. Perhaps if everything wasn’t decaying.
As we bumped over a single-lane bridge, I see every building enshrouded with the boring rust-colored brick that was common in early turn-of-the-century construction. Glassless windows, vacant eyes of a bygone era, stare blankly at us. Building after decomposing building, silent as gravestones, mark our steady progress deeper into town. The sun, low in the western sky, casts elongated shadows that add to the gloom.
“You really grew up here?” I ask, breaking the haunted silence.
“That explains a lot,” I tease, trying to lighten the mood.
As the ride continued, Vincent became quieter, graver. Now, he is stiff. He squeezes the steering wheel in a bloodless grip.
“Is everything okay?”
“Yes,” he replies.
“Nervous about how your family will receive me?”
“Something like that.”
“It’ll be fine,” I say, placing a hand tenderly on his shoulder. “I’m sure they’ll find me delightful.”
Vincent gives me a brief but inviting smile.
“I’m good. Just anxious. Glad I brought you.”
“Me too,” I say, breathing deeply. I take in his musk. Ah, citrus, salt, and rotten eggs? No. that’s the town.
“Are you going to show me where you work?”
“Your work? An office? I know you’re in procurement, but we never really discussed the details.”
“Yeah. That’s where we’re heading now.”
“To your office?”
My question goes unanswered. I’m starting to feel uncomfortable. His chatter is evasive, and I realize I know little about him. It’s like he’s hiding something.
“Hey! Weird question. What cologne do you use?”
“What cologne do I use?” he asks.
“Yeah. You always smell so good. A little sweet, a little salty. Like citrus, lemons. But now, being here in your hometown, there’s something similar about how you smell and how this place does.”
“I guess growing up in a place can seep into your pores. I once read a questionnaire, or something, where they asked you to describe how your hometown smelled.”
“And what did you say?”
“I never take part in those things. But, if I were to describe the smell of this place, I guess I would say it smells like the salt of the earth, flowers from the fields, mixed with manure from the farms.”
“And rotten eggs?”
“You know, that overpowering rotten egg smell that’s everywhere?”
“Oh yeah,” he says absently.
“The way you describe the smell of this place is spot on. I smell it too.” However, to me, the mixture of salty, floral, and citrusy is also reminiscent of decay and death. Don’t ask me how I know that. A visceral and evolutionary reaction? More likely a Google rabbit hole I went down one day.
Vincent turns to regard me. He’s wearing his customary smile. All teeth and subtly upturned lips. In this light, it looks predatory. Strange, I’ve never noticed that before.
The steady drone of the asphalt gives way to an uneasy rocking as we turn onto a loose gravel road. Doing so, I catch a glance at a battered mailbox. The numbers are no longer legible. A few remaining flecks of silver paint display the name “Price.”
“Are we here?” I ask.
“At the end of this lane,” Vincent says.
He brings the car to a dust-filled stop in front of an old farmhouse. White-peeled paint, broken shudders, and rotted stairs are evidence that no one has cared for this place in a while. Farm equipment, rusted and grown through with weeds, litters the side yard. An old porch swing lists to one side, screaking and bumping rhythmically against the house as it sways in the breeze.
“Come on,” he says. “It’s time to meet the family.”
I don’t know why that statement unsettles me. Maybe it’s the setting. This place is creepy. My rigid body refuses to move.
“Your family still lives here?” I ask, echoing my thoughts.
“Of course, silly,” he replies, smiling. “Come on. They’ll love you.”
“You think so?” is my lame reply. Something doesn’t smell right about this.
“I do,” he says.
What? Did he just say he loved me? What is going on?
Numbly, I get out of the car and follow him up the stairs.
“Watch your step.” He warns, avoiding a broken board.
Above the front door, a weather-worn sign faintly proclaims, “Vincent Price Sr., Mortician.” As we enter his house, I glimpse a kitchen, linoleum floor peeling around the edges, at the opposite end. To the left, a small table holds yellowed, unopened mail. Next to the mail was a small, round picture frame. Bending closer, I see it displays a single picture of a family, father, mother, and three children of varying ages dressed in old-fashioned clothes posing on a floral print sofa. All blacks, reds, and browns in the sepia photo. One figure, the tallest of the children, is wearing a black suit and has a familiar smile. He looks like…
“This way.” Vincent states.
“What?” I stammer. My thought severed by Vincent’s interruption.
“Come,” he says. One hand is in mine. His gentle touch replaced by one that was unnaturally cold. His other holds firm at my elbow. “Time to meet the family,” he continues, guiding me into a sitting room opposite the table.
As he leads, pulls, me into the room, I don’t know what shocks me more. There, on a floral-print sofa, sat the spitting image of the picture in the hallway. Dressed in tattered cotton broadcloth clothes are four people. By their size and position on the couch, I judge I am looking at a father, mother, daughter, and son.
The stench coming is overwhelming. I’ve never been to a charnel house, but it couldn’t smell any worse than this. Odors of feces, stale breath, and rotting flesh hit wave after wave from the foursome.
As shocking as this is, it pales to my horror when I realized that the one person missing from the familial portrait playing out live was the eldest son. Turning, I take Vincent in, perhaps, truly, for the first time; the black suit, a mortician’s shroud, the toothy, predatory smile, and that smell — a cadaverine putrescence that overwhelms my senses.
“What the fuck?” I demand, wrenching my arm away from his.
The knock of bone on bone draws my attention back to the quartet. In jerking, unbalanced movements, they rise, as one, from the sofa. They step into the faint light cast by the hallway and the extent of this horror reveals itself.
Slow-moving arms reach for me. A sleeve from the mother’s house clothes rides up, exposing shriveled tendons and chunks of rotting flesh dangling from the bones of her forearm. The father’s mouth, agape in a silent scream, oozes liquified innards and belches sulfuric bloat. And the children, smaller, fresher, versions of their parents, lurch on unsteady legs.
Nearer and nearer, they approach. Their odor was both repulsive and innately attractive. A mix of social cues, both off-putting and inviting.
Stealing my gaze away from their hollowed-out eyes, I turn back towards Vincent. My hands on his shoulders, I look into his doll-dead eyes. Pleading, I find no warmth. No affection. No love.
“I told you,” he says, the smell of spoiling meat masked by peppermint upon his breath. “I am in procurement for my family. They are, shall we say, not quite dead, and not quite alive.”
“You could call them that. They’ve consumed everyone that was left in town. Now it’s my job to procure fresh product so that they can live.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means, dear, that you are the procured. It means, they’re coming to get you, Barbara.”