It began with a tickling in the back of my nose. A cold coming on, or an allergy, some springtime pollen which would dissipate as the summer progressed. If it stayed as it was, a gentle but persistent nuisance, then I think I would have gotten used to it and not have even noticed before long.
Day by day the pressure of the incessant tickle increased. The air in my apartment took on a greasy quality, an irritation that never quite went away.
It was getting warmer though, and I didn’t mind keeping the windows open all the time. I bought one of those lemon-scented air fresheners that automatically releases throughout the day and put it beside my bed, enjoying the citrus freshness it exuded.
The next week I bought two more, for my living room and kitchen, but the malodorous intrusion would always find a way through anyway.
Rotten eggs, burning sulphur, noxious and nauseating. My nose and eyes were softly burning all the time, and it made working from home an absolute nightmare. There was no real escape though, because the smell had so thoroughly permeated my small apartment that it began to linger on me wherever I went. I started taking two showers a day, practically bathing in cologne every time I went out.
My building manager told me that sometimes rats will crawl into the air ducts and get trapped and die in there. Sometimes there’s no way to get at them though, and you just have to wait for them to rot and fade away. I kept calling him to remind him to send someone to look into it, but he was evasive and kept insisting he would have smelled it too if it was as bad as I say. Like fermented fish in a gasoline soup, I told him, and getting worse all the time. I threatened to end my lease early if he didn’t get it fixed, and then he started accusing me of making it up just to get out of paying rent.
I was so angry when I got off the phone. I immediately started calling my neighbours in the surrounding apartments. The manager might be able to ignore me, but he couldn’t ignore all of us if we complained together. I was shocked when one person after the next told me they didn’t smell it though. I gradually realised the smell must really be confined to my room, which seemed like remarkably lousy luck.
I searched the place from top to bottom, opening every cupboard, shining a light into the AC vents, moving the furniture around to look beneath, but never found a single clue. I must have been breathing heavier from the exertion and frustration, because the scent was becoming suffocating. It was like my face was buried in a dead animal, with blood and decaying matter dribbling into my mouth and down my throat with every inhalation.
That’s when I began to think my manager might have been right, and that it was all in my head after all. Desperate and exhausted, I decided to go to the doctor to get my nose checked. I could tell by the way the receptionist drew away from me that the cologne wasn’t enough to cover the lingering smell. I spent a long time in the little waiting room, and when the doctor opened the door he immediately slammed it shut again, coughing and wheezing in the hallway. That gave me a certain satisfaction as I realised I wasn’t just hallucinating the whole thing.
The satisfaction vanished when the doctor returned wearing a face mask. He asked me to remove my shirt, his eyes narrowed as he critically inspected my clean and healthy body.
“I’m glad there’s nothing wrong with my nose at least,” I said, half-jokingly.
“Your nose is fine. I’m more worried about your eyes,” he told me, very seriously.
I started to tell him my eyes were fine, but caught my breath at the sharp sting of him picking at my stomach with a gloved hand. I watched in disgust as a flap of my skin easily peeled away, crumbling into dust like a decaying log.
“The brain can sometimes suppress knowledge that is too traumatic to deal with, but I’ve never heard of the visual system doing the same. How long did you say your skin has been rotting off?”
Somehow I hadn’t noticed except from the smell, although no sooner had he said the words that I noticed how my grey and sagging skin came sloughing off at the slightest touch.