A Twist Shuts Down the Rumor Mill

by Donna Johnson


In this case, a cliché said it best: I would have killed for a toilet.

When the urge hit me, it was dusk, and I was headed through the campus renovation zone to cover a sick coworker’s night shift, with working bathrooms a block away. On the fence around the old chemistry building, where I once worked, the padlock hung open. I slipped through the gate and raced for the building door. With all the horror stories I’d heard over the years about critters that lurked in the night, only desperation could make me fool enough to try it.

The building, however, was occupied. Drilling pulverized the old stone floor, a sledgehammer pounded, and a saw whined. Three masked construction men with lighted hats chipped away beneath the floor tiles. When they looked up, I froze and squeezed my thighs tight.

“Can we help you, lady?” the big man with the hammer barked. “You need a hardhat in here.”

“No time!” I clenched my fists and hopped over a pile of rubble. “Bathroom!”

“You can’t!” he called. “The walls are open, and the pipes are...”

I darted around the corner in the middle of his rant, thinking I heard him say something about “exposed” and “hanging.” Some lewd joke, I decided.

I rushed into the old restroom. The ladies’ door had lost its spring, and it cracked shut like a fired shotgun behind me. Heart in my throat in the thick dark, I stared until I made out the bare pipes where the outer walls were once solid, bemoaning my lack of headgear and blatant disregard for warnings. The tang of mildewed wood on boarded up windows assailed me, reminding me of the chairman’s favorite story about research once done here on nasty slime molds. He loved to watch us shudder.

I had once loved this bathroom. The windows were always open, and squirrels peeked inside hoping for seeds or nuts or a little bit of trouble to get into. Not so now. The atmosphere was gone. What remained was a horror-mansion shell of the past. What would the girls say if they saw me here now? Afraid to linger longer, I focused on finding my way through the rubble.

I brushed against stripped-cement inner walls and tossed stall debris aside until I felt the single dust-powdered commode still in place, a pool of foul-smelling water pooled in it. It was good my eyes weren’t fully adjusted, I decided. I held my breath and crouched over the seat to find relief.

Pound, pound, pound. The floor vibrated.

As the pipes shook, I wondered what stories the walls could tell. Early in demolition, workmen found decades-old porn tucked into a drop-down ceiling. Rumors ranging from hidden treasure to large centipedes captured for venom research, homeless colonies to nuclear research waste walled in lead in the basement, spoke volumes about the old building’s secret places. Or at least our need to fill them. I thought again of the bugs and shuddered. One rumor said experiments had made a bunch sentient and they engineered their own escape. The way I felt about cruelty, I figured we deserved whatever we got.

I scoffed at the torments of human imagination, bent over the only sink and twisted an unmarked lever. Just a few drops of water and a groaning pipe. Then came the rustling scurry of scores of insect feet, like cockroaches fleeing from light. My arms itched as I pictured a swarm of the winged critters I’d occasionally seen on their backs in dark corners, and I imagined them crawling on my skin.

In the absence of sound outside my bathroom, I fought down acid panic, the fear of being left alone, and slunk toward the door. Nothing was worse than being alone with cockroaches.

Something plunked onto my head, brushed my ear. A chill ran down my neck and onto my shoulder. My hair crept into my face as though frizzed from a static charge. Tickly threads slid from the shoulder of my long-sleeved blouse, down the slick polyester arm to my side. I eased in close to the cracked mirror so I could see and turned sideways.

The creature stretched at least a foot long. Red head, black-green back and yellow... legs. A hundred legs. It shifted and slid toward my hand. I thrashed, making it cling to my blouse. Logic dawned. It was poisonous, but not through its mouth. If its feet scratched my skin...

I went rigid and let the centipede relax. Once it crept to my pants, I jerked the thigh of the poly-rayon off my skin. The bug skated down over my hand and clacked onto the debris at my feet. Then it scurried back up the wall and disappeared into a crack between wood and stone.

I thought it was over. I was safe. I looked up, stared into the open ceiling at writhing shadows curled around at least fifty globs. Nests. Every hair on my body stood away from the skin. Were they watching me?

I counted five clacks on the debris around me before my mind shut out the sound. Even in the dark I saw details of movement: the centipedes, these all larger than the first, closed ranks. They meant to. I couldn’t reach the window. I couldn’t make the door. I froze.

A broken board seesawed near me as a centipede passed over it. I caught the edge and swung it, knocking back two bugs. Still they came. I screamed and jumped up and down. They paused until I stopped. They couldn’t hear, but they could feel vibration and didn’t like it. Holding the board vertical, I struck the floor. They paused. I thumped harder, faster. Their circle broke apart. I hopped from the debris and flung back the bathroom door.

Sentient. I fled in the darkness, aimed for the outer door. On impulse my hand flew to my neck. Nothing. Yet I still felt the centipede tickling there, as though rooting into my skull, entwining my brain stem, eating my flesh. I saw myself a few months later shuffling down the new corridors among zombie chemists speaking in monotones, our every thought controlled.

Armed with a departmental legend worthy of the renovation, I slammed my palms against the outside door, drew in the fresh night air and never looked back.


Copyright © 2007 by Donna Johnson

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