An Urban SciFi Short Story by Andrew L. Hodges


by Andrew L. Hodges

Bewildering Stories  –  JJ Outre Review



When Greta Garbo from upstairs called, Mr. Pagulccio could only sit and listen. She was so hysterical and insistent that all he could do was massage his eyes while she yacked his ear off. Apparently, there was some vague problem that he reluctantly agreed to fix. This was a mere obligation on his part considering this was supposed to be his day off. Yet as the building super, he had to accept these interruptions as merely his lot in life. Though in possession of the abundant jocularity typical of heavy-set men, he found himself already growing irritated. He had set this Saturday aside as a day off, to enjoy the ball game and a six-pack away from the nagging and hectoring of his tenants. But the game had no sooner started than one of his more infamous tenants was on the phone and complaining about a mold problem. Such was life.

Muttering to himself, the old man donned his overalls and work boots before strapping his gut in with a tool belt. Ol’ Greta wasn’t much for details, so he couldn’t even speculate on what he ought to expect. He settled on grabbing his toolbox and step stool, the bread and butter of his trade, before setting out for Greta’s apartment upstairs. He wasn’t keen on Ms. Garbo, but it wasn’t his place to complain. As the building’s super, he served a purely perfunctory role as a fixer of problems.

Mr. Pagglucio left his apartment in the basement and started to trudge upstairs, lugging the heavy toolbox. Nearly fifty, he was starting to feel his age going up and down these steps every day. The complex was an old plantation house that had been converted into rooms for rent, most of which were occupied by old cranks and pensioners. They had been bugging him for years to install an elevator, and his cracking knees were now starting to convert him to the idea. He could only be grateful that, for the most part, the old folks were very appreciative of his efforts. Though cranky and in many cases overly talkative, they treated their super (who was, by comparison, a spring chicken) with a great deal of respect. The old ladies would pass on pies and cobblers while the gray-haired rascals would invite him up for cards or a gossip session over beers. Yet he felt he deserved time to himself, considering how hard he worked the rest of the week. As such, he found himself in a gloomy mood as he went up to inspect what he already perceived to be a minuscule problem.

With a lot of gasping and huffing, he ascended both sets of stairs, going up to the third floor where Greta’s apartment was. He was beginning to suspect that he was getting far too old and fat for this, which was hardly a revelation. Squeezing under sink cabinets and climbing about on ladders had gotten tricky as of late. His son, who used to help him run the place, was away at college to pursue his dreams of becoming a history teacher. This left Mr. Pagluccio with no one to help him, though he was now beginning to see what a boon the young Turk had been. The old man couldn’t blame the kid, considering his meager circumstances as a widower renting out rooms in a dead-end town. Plus, this job was bound to get to anyone after a while. His knees were starting to creak like rusty hinges, and every other day he woke up feeling more like a stiff cardboard cutout than a flesh-and-blood handyman.

Mr. Pagluccio finally stumbled to the third story with his lungs panting for air. He took a moment to catch his wind, setting his toolbox down on the floor. His hand throbbed from the weight of it and his stumpy legs were aching fiercely. He contemplated the scuffed door before him, wondering if the long trek up here was even worth the effort. The two floors below had four apartments apiece, but the top floor had only the one. It had been the house’s attic at one point, but Mr. Pagluccio had converted it when he first took over as super about ten years ago. Greta Garbo had moved in five years after that, and he had not been in there since.

Of course, Greta Garbo was NOT her real name, only the one given her by the tenants. Mr. Pagluccio had tried to maintain her original identity in his mind as long as possible, but the nickname had eventually superseded her legal one. The tenant’s caricature of her had eventually won him over, destroyed any objective opinion he might have of her as a tenant. Greta was a white-haired fox of about sixty, who wore long black dresses and a conical sun hat with a brim that was decorated by plastic roses. She had very fine ways, and her strutting walk and exaggerated way of talking was almost dramatic in their composition. In a community of the elderly, things tended to be close-knit due to the tight quarters and the mutually present fear of death. As a lone wolf in a house full of dependents, the Garbo woman had earned the contempt of everyone. The beldams, in particular, did not care for her bravado and prim manner, speaking disparagingly of Greta in whispers over their tea and knitting. Mr. Pagluccio absorbed many of these whispers personally, with some old wife or widow prying him for information while he fixed their sink or hooked up a new appliance.

But Mr. Pagluccio himself had very little contact with Greta, despite being her landlord and super. Her calls to him were rare and usually consisted of complaints about the noise in the apartments downstairs. She never gave him anything to do that necessitated his presence in her apartment, and her payments always arrived in an envelope deposited into his mailbox on the first floor. He never had to interact with her personally, which suited him just fine. Their few phone conversations had not been a positive experience, and he considered her to be either going senile or just out-and-out bonkers. She had a very round-about hem-and-haw way of talking and trying to understand her was like chasing a white rabbit in a blizzard.

Once he had regained his composure, Mr. Pagluccio approached the door. He gave it a good few raps with his hairy fist and called out “Ms. Dulaney?”

No reply.

He repeated his volley of knocking, hitting the door with more vigor. “Ms. Dulaney? It’s Mr. Pag. I’m here about the mold?”

Still no reply.

He waited, but nothing developed. With a sigh, he produced his monstrous keyring from the pocket of his overalls. He flicked through them, found the one he wanted, and shoved it into the door. Now that he was turning the latch, he realized that he was a little bit curious about what the apartment looked like. He visited most of the apartments on a weekly if not monthly basis, but this place was the one exception. There was a bit of mystery to coming here after half a decade of obscurity, a tinge of the unknown.

Mr. Pagglucio pushed the door open and surreptitiously poked his head through the threshold. “Hello, Ms. Dulaney?”

He waited but again received no answer. She had just called him: had she already gone out? He knew he ought to wait longer for a reply, but he was desperate to get the job over with. Mr. Pagluccio gathered up his tools and carried them into the apartment, kicking the door closed behind him. It was a bit of a relief, to know that he would be working alone. He didn’t normally mind the tenants watching him while he worked, being by nature gregarious, but the Garbo woman set his teeth on edge. Just thinking about her glaring eyes and pursed lips gave him the screaming meemies.

The upstairs apartment was a vague T-shape with a little ante-room, a living room, and a kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom in the back. It was cramped living, and barely even big enough for its one inhabitant. But walking in, Mr. Pagluccio was shocked to see just how crowded the place had become. The ante-room was utterly saturated, the walls and floor obscured by piles of garbage. There were overflowing boxes of newspapers and torn gift wrappings, stacks of dust-covered books, cast-off crates that had contained soda bottles, oranges, and sardine tins, all stacked into towers of trash. Everything was thrown about higgeldy-piggeldy, and the collection of rubbish ziggurats looked ready to topple at any moment.

Mr. Pagluccio was nothing short of stunned. As the caretaker of a shared property, he understood that cleaning up after someone else was par for the course. Yet the actual proportion of apathy on display here was beyond the absurd. He was a bit of a slob himself, but this was too much. How could anyone live like this?

And the smell! He didn’t notice it until he was standing further in, but when it hit him, his nose instinctively crinkled. Mr. Pagluccio had encountered everything from busted septic lines to the stink of a dead tenant who had rotted alone for three days. Yet none of these compared to what he was smelling now, not even close. It was not simply a bad smell, but an odor that was somehow completely alien to him. It was organic, like the fragrance of an exotic plant, with an acrid sting to it. The putrid air forced him to apply his do-rag to his nose as he moved farther in, trying hard not to puke. There was a job to do, and he was the building’s ever-stoic super.

Mr. Pagluccio still wasn’t sure what the problem was exactly, but his plan of action was to dig about and see the extent of the damage. Greta had said something or other about mold and that meant the apartment was at least getting a good spritzing of Bleach with a weed killer pump. He would probably have to fumigate the place too (judging by the smell) and have the professionals come in for an inspection. Between the condition of the apartment and the condition of the roof, he would not be surprised if some leak had cultivated a whole ecosystem of mycoid invaders in the walls and ceiling.

Stepping into the living room, he saw that it was cleaner, but not by much. There was a black sofa, a crumb-covered coffee table, a television, and a shelf full of DVDs. There was a scattering of wrappings and bottles, but nothing he wasn’t used to. There were pictures scattered here and there, most of them featuring a dark-haired woman in old, grainy photos riding horses or touring what looked European locales. There were no wedding photos or pictures of children, more evidence that ol’ Ms. Garbo was indeed a spinster. Her aesthetic was bare, but somehow the living room still felt crowded.

As he glanced about the room, he saw something laying on the floor. At first, it looked like a rubber toy, some mutant creature from a cartoon or TV show captured in a cheap polymer. Moving a little closer, Mr. Pagluccio though it resembled an enormous silverfish. The thing was slightly longer than a man’s hand and had a glistening, grayish chitin carapace. It was insect-like, but the abundance of legs coupled with a humped tail and pinching chelicera made it look more like a cross between a centipede and a crayfish.

Acting instinctively, Mr. Pagluccio brought his work boot down on the abomination with a loud pop and an explosion of viscera. His foot squelched as he lifted it, the cleats dripping mangled chitin and yellow glop. The critter’s blood had an awry glow to it that reminded Mr. Pagluccio of fireflies. Dear God, what WAS it? The way things were shaping up, he would have to call an exterminator as well as a fumigator to get the place in order.

He continued into the kitchen, which was just a hallway connecting the bathroom and bedroom. The clutter continued with an exuberance of trash and untended waste. Just about every surface bore clusters of cereal boxes, empty condiment containers, snack bags, and plastic tubs of leftovers. Bits of food were scattered everywhere, and both the sink and trash cannister overflowed with the remains of past meals. Ms. Garbo was, apparently, not much of a housekeeper.

Mr. Pagluccio’s eyes were drawn immediately to the corner of the ceiling. There was a hatch, which concealed the opening to the crawl space between the apartment and the beams of the roof. When he had walled all this in to form a living space, Mr. Pagluccio had installed the hatch for easy access to the roof in case of leaks or faulty wiring. But it was not so much the hatch as what was growing around it that shocked him. More than anything, he was just surprised that he had not been notified of the problem sooner.

Mold grew around the frame of the hatch in a soft carpet of organic decrepitude. It sprouted and spread in a vaguely spiral shape, radiating outwards in fuzzy waves. The plaster was coming apart and craters formed that sprouted mini jungles of mold fronds and hyphae. Mr. Pagluccio had become something of an amateur mycologist over many years as both a contractor and a building super, yet he had no category for this. The infestation was completely beyond his experience.

The mold was blooming in huge masses, more like moss than mold proper. It had a corrupting, festering look to it, with spikey hyphae and sinusoidal stalks. It was brilliant neon green and yellow, the fronds casting an odd glow. He couldn’t be sure down here, but he thought he detected subtle pulsations of light. There was no paradigm by which he could process this possibility and decided he would withhold all judgment until he took a closer look. Probably it wouldn’t be until a specialist gave it a glance that he would know what he was dealing with.

He had just finished setting up his step ladder when he heard a scuttling sound on the kitchen counter. He turned just in time to see something run behind a collection of boxes. He didn’t get a good look at the critter, but his first impression was of a mouse. It was the size of one anyway, and it had a tail. Yet there was a clicking and clacking noise as it ran that suggested a multitude of legs. He made a note to call his local exterminator friend Al Greer, who would cut him a good price.

Mr. Pagluccio mounted the stepladder and peered at the strange fungal intruder that seemed to be blooming through the ceiling. The curved stalks of the hyphae did, indeed, pulsate slowly with a kind of inner phosphorescence. He wanted to touch it, but his instincts protested. It was best to avoid any kind of bodily contact with this stuff until he had some expert opinions to inform him of what he ought to do. Fumigation was looking like the inevitable course of action, but he still couldn’t be sure how safe or dangerous this stuff was. Either way, he was going to have to lift the hatch and see how bad things were on the other side of the ceiling. He hypothesized that a leak had caused something to take root, no pun intended, which meant that the splotch on the ceiling was only a symptom of a larger problem.

As he descended the stepladder to get his flashlight, Mr. Pagluccio saw something slither across the floor. There were two of them in fact, coming from opposite corners of the room and crisscrossing at the base of his stepladder before they vanished into the piles of scattered junk. Mr. Pagluccio thought they looked like enormous earwigs, except for the strange neon color of their chitin. They were lime green, with swirls of red penumbra glowing in little splotches all down their tails. It looked like Allan Greer was going to have his work cut out for him.

Mr. Pagluccio drew a yellow flashlight out of the toolbox and climbed back up onto the stepladder. He needed a deeper grasp of the issue so he had something more specific to tell the mold people when he called them. With one calloused hand, he gave the hatch a shove and moved it out of its frame. The wooden door gave way with a loud squelching sound that was like utility tape being ripped away. Wincing against the smell, Mr. Pagluccio poked his head into the opening and directed his light into the darkness.

The old man could not understand what he saw.

Everything from beams of the ceiling to the pink insulation was sprouting lawns of phosphorescent green. The mold was everywhere, on every surface, throbbing and radiating in its ghostly colors. The vague luminescence cast eerie and otherworldly shadows over a landscape of swaying and unfolding fronds and squirming shapes. Everywhere Mr. Pagluccio looked, he saw mounds of the stuff, sprouting and festering in a landscape that was like nothing on God’s green Earth. Some of the fronds were even flowering, producing tall stalks that bore fruiting bodies big as a man’s fist. These too glowed and throbbed with an unearthly yellowish light. Some of them had even burst open and were spitting wispy opaque particles into the air.

Mr. Pagluccio coughed, his throat going dry.

Worst of all though, was how everything was covered in masses of crawling bodies. There were things everywhere, squirming and writhing with strange chitinous tails and legs. The scuttling, the clicking, the snap and pop of smooth bodies shuffling over each other was continuous and maddeningly monotonous. He saw more examples of both the green and gray insects, many of them even bigger and longer than what he had previously encountered below. He saw things that soared through the air and others that crawled in and out of the moss like giant worms. Some of them rolled on spiked bodies, while others scuttled sideways like misshapen crabs. There were too many varieties to count, all eternally feasting on the moss and on each other.

Mr. Pagluccio could only stare in wonder at this bizarre ecosystem. How long had all this been growing here? And more importantly, how in the world was he going to get rid of it? He would need to call every pest control expert and fumigator he knew to get this all sorted…assuming he COULD sort it. The whole complex would have to be evacuated immediately, and he would probably have to go to a hospital for a check-up. The whole place was contaminated by things he could not name and that did not look as if they grew and lived in any sane world that he knew of.

These thoughts disintegrated when he saw something lying a few feet from the hatch that was neither moss nor one of the terrible crawling things. The dim glow of the moss was not quite enough to make out what it was, so he trained his light on it. He had to squint, but it looked like a woman’s pajama dress, all crumbled into a heap. The fabric looked torn and was smeared with glowing green stains from the moss. Though he couldn’t be sure, Mr. Pagluccio also thought he saw a myriad of dark red blotches all down the dresses front…

He was snapped out of these contemplations by the sound of movement off to his right. Mr. Pagluccio turned and saw something coming out of the darkness towards him. It was so large that its body brushed against the beams overhead, making a terrible scraping sound. It pulled its huge, chitinous carapace on a multitude of legs, which stabbed at the moss and dug into the remains of the beams. Due to its size and bulk, Mr. Pagluccio expected it to fall through the plaster. Yet the terrible thing glided smoothly over the corrupted insulation, moving as listlessly as a spider. As he turned his flashlight towards the giant monstrosity, the handyman saw a gleam of giant chitinous teeth.

Mr. Pagluccio’s last thought in the world of the living was that he had been wrong in thinking an exterminator could handle this.

The National Guard would have been a more appropriate option.

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