Matthew awoke to an argument. It was the couple next door.
“… don’t have all we need…”
“… the special dish…”
The back of his head throbbed and each word of the barely audible conversation caused a fresh jolt of pain.
“… making me go all the way there…”
When their front door opened, Matthew opened his eyes. The dim light of the early evening sun made him squint. The pain in his head persisted. When he got to his feet, he felt weak and shaky. After a labored, painful breath, tiny dark spots appeared in front of his eyes. He fell back on the couch’s soft cushions. For long minutes he rested, but breathing was still terribly hard. His throat felt impossibly sore and the air in his apartment was dry and sticky. Fresh air, he needed fresh air. He stumbled to the window and tore it open, but instead of the fresh evening air he’d hoped for, the smell of cooking reached him. The neighbors must’ve their kitchen window open. He wrinkled his nose at the heavy, spicy aroma. With a curse, he closed the window again.
While he wondered what sort of meal they were making, he heard the husband returning from the store. He sighed, the building’s walls were too thin. He didn’t want to, but couldn’t help listening in as they talked. A fresh argument started, and he heard the old woman pleading about her special dish. Her husband grumbled in answer, and soon Matthew heard his footsteps as he set out on another trip to the store. As he sat there, rubbing his temples, he wondered if something was wrong with his head.
He pushed himself up and made his way to the kitchen. He sighed when he saw the perpetual state of chaos. The trash can was overflowing and dirty, crusted dishes filled the sink. He wondered when he’d last cleaned it, but the pain was still stabbing at his head. His hands were shaking as he he picked up a glass and filled it with cold water. Back in the living room, he considered popping an aspirin or two. Aspirin, in the back of his mind a memory began stirring, one barely out of reach.
His thoughts were interrupted when he heard the neighbors again. It was yet another argument. Overcome by curiosity about the weird events next door, he strained his ears.
“But it won’t be my special dish without it. Can’t you go to the store and get it?”
“Making me go all the way there this time of the day.”
Hadn’t heard this conversation before?
He wrinkled his nose as the hint of a strange smell reached him. Was it their cooking? Cursing, he went back to the window and tore it open. The moment he did, the same heavy cooking smell hit him. It was heavier now, more oppressive. The sharp spices and the strong flagrance of juniper stung in his nose and made his eyes water. He coughed, waved his hands to drive it away, but the more he fought, the stronger the smell became. He almost gagged and eventually gave up and threw the window shut again. The smell, however, had already spread through his apartment and it wasn’t helping his head at all. For a second his world began spinning, and he quickly got himself another glass of water.
He’d barely emptied it when he heard the neighbors again. The special dish. They were always talking about that special dish of hers. Their argument raged on and soon, the old man set out again. By now, he couldn’t ignore it anymore. He’d had it with their strange behavior. He threw over a jacket, put on his shoes and made his way outside.
When he stepped into the hallway, he caught a last glance of the old man before the elevator doors closed. Cursing and with quick steps, he hurried down the stairs. Once he’d reached the ground floor, he was panting, but he couldn’t see the old man. He must’ve already left the building. He saw him outside, entering the grocery store on the opposite side of the road. Mere moments later, Matthew entered the store and approached him.
“Mr. Schuster,” he greeted him.
The old man’s eyes met Matthew’s. For a few seconds he didn’t seem to recognize him.
“Ah, the young man from next door, how are you doing?”
Mr. Schuster’s speech and mannerism had a certain edge, as if certain gestures and words were too studied.
“Not bad,” Matthew brought out. “How about you, Mr. Schuster, a few last-minute purchases?”
“You know how it is, just getting a few things for the missus. She’s cooking her special dish.”
Of course, he knew. All they’d been talking about was that special dish.
“Hope you find everything you need,” he said out loud instead.
Mr. Schuster smiled at him before he continued on his way through the store. As inconspicuous as possible, Matthew trailed the old man. He’d expected Mr. Schuster to get exotic spices, or certain special ingredients he’d forgotten during his earlier trips. Instead, he picked up the most mundane of things; two packs of meat, a few carrots, a bundle of celery and a selection of herbs. While Mr. Schuster walked to the register to pay for and pack his groceries, Matthew got himself a can of coke.
“Must be one hell of a dish they are making,” he joked as he stepped up to the register.
The young cashier didn’t seem to listen. She had spaced out and was staring at nothing.
“Hey, excuse me, do you know how often that old man’s been here today?” he asked, louder, and pointed at the leaving Mr. Schuster.
Finally, the tired eyes of the young woman met his, almost as if she’d only noticed him now. Then she gave him a shrug. Her mannerism, too, was slightly off.
“Sorry, my shift just started,” she answered in a monotonous voice before she rang up his coke.
After he’d paid, Matthew hurried back to the apartment building. Mr. Schuster was gone, and the elevator was already going up. When he’d made it upstairs, he saw the old man in front of his door, fumbling with his keys. Before long, he unlocked it and shuffled inside, bag of groceries in hand.
From afar, he could hear them again. First a mumbling conversation, then another argument. Even out here, he could hear the old woman’s agitated words. The special dish, the special dish she seemed to hiss. And finally, Mr. Schuster stepped outside again and shuffled past him on his way back to the elevator.
Matthew watched in stunned silence.
By now, the air in the entire hallway was heavy with the oppressive smell of their perpetual cooking meal. He returned to his apartment and threw the door. How long had they been at it? How much of that special dish were they making? All he could remember was the first argument that had woken him. If, he realized, it had even been their first. Before that, though, there was… nothing. He couldn’t seem to remember. His head was clouded, his thoughts hazy. The throbbing was back, and he wondered if it was related to their cooking, to its smell.
In an instant, Matthew returned to the hallway and stomped to their door.
“Excuse me,” he started and gave the door a knock.
When he got no reaction, he knocked again.
“Mrs. Schuster, do you have a moment?”
When the old woman didn’t answer, he grew annoyed, angry, and pounded his fist against the door. As if to answer him, a brownish, soupy liquid leaked from below the door. He stepped back, staring at it in disgust and confusion.
“What the hell…?” he brought out.
There was no end to it. More and more leaked outside and drenched the carpeted floor of the hallway. The ding of the elevator made him jerk. Out stepped Mr. Schuster with yet another bag of groceries in his hands. The old man gave him a friendly nod before he stepped right into the puddle of soup and unlocked the door. When he opened it, more of the brownish soup spilled outward, drenching his shoes and ankles. Mr. Schuster, however, entered the apartment undeterred. Matthew stood there, mouth agape from the surreal sight, the plethora of questions he’d wanted to ask still stuck in his throat. He laughed when he heard them argue. What was going on here?
When Mr. Schuster left the apartment again, more soup surged outside, washing over the floor and splattering against the walls around it. Once more, the old man didn’t seem to care, or notice it, and his wet, squishy steps led him back to the elevator. By now, Matthew didn’t just feel anger, wasn’t just disgusted or confused. He was afraid. Something was wrong here, very wrong.
He fled to his apartment, but found the air heavy with the same oppressive smell that wafted through the hallway. The walls in his living room looked different. He reached out his hand and found the wallpaper wet and sticky. When he pulled it back, his palm was covered in grease. As he stared at it in disgust, the argument next door played out again. The old couple’s voices were more animated and strangely over-exaggerated now. When Mr. Schuster went on yet another trip, he heard more soup spilling outside and washing through the entire hallway.
Matthew threw himself on the couch and pushed his hands against his ears to drown out the sounds outside. None of this made any sense. It couldn’t be real. It had to be a dream or a mental episode, a hallucination. After only ten minutes, they were arguing again. He lay on his couch, curled into a ball, and listened to their ever-repeating argument. Each time their voices became more agitated, more distorted, and more inhumane. Suddenly, the strangest of feelings washed over him. It wasn’t so much acceptance, it was indifference. If none of this was real, then…
More than an hour had passed when Matthew left his apartment again. He gave no heed to the soup that flooded the hallway or the sudden, derelict state of the walls. Next door, Mr. Schuster, or what had been Mr. Schuster, pushed himself from the door. His body had changed, warped itself into a bloated, blob-like creature. Matthews’s eyes grew wide, and a cry escaped his mouth. He cringed back, but to his surprise, the creature didn’t pay him any notice. Instead, it shambled through the flooded, derelict hallway and entered the rusty cage which replaced the once pristine elevator. In a feverish trance and strangely fascinated by the changes, he made his way through the liquid, distorted hell of the hallway. When he entered the staircase, it had turned into a twisting spiral of creaking, worm-eaten wood.
The world outside had changed too. The road had become an upheaved crater landscape, and the buildings had contorted into grown together monstrosities of brick and mortar. He stood, staring in wondrous horror, at the waking nightmare that played out around him before he followed the shambling, bloated thing. What was once a grocery store was now a gaping, looming maw, leading underground.
The inside was a labyrinthine mess of twisted, rotten shelves filled with the most nightmarish of goods. Meat twitched and squeaked inside its packaging. Vegetables had become caricatures of themselves, and all around him the shelves were lined with creations that defied explanation. The young cashier had changed into an elongated, impossibly thin version of herself. Her head was gigantic and reached high above the highest of shelves, and her bulging eyes followed his every step as he traversed the once-store.
Matthew stared in horror as one of the squirming piece of meat crawled from its packaging and closed around his hand. When he felt the wet, sinewy flesh, it’s gentle, almost caressing touch, the trance he’d been under evaporated. Gone were the feelings of wonder and curiosity, of acceptance and indifference. If he could feel it, didn’t it mean it was no hallucination, no dream? All of this had to be… real. Fear washed over him and terror gripped his soul. In an instant, he fled from the nightmarish and distorted reality back to the apartment building.
After he’d ascended the winding, spiral staircase, he found the hallway a raging torrent of gooey soup. He had to fight himself forward as the sticky, knee-high liquid washed against his legs. He noticed things drifting past him, staring at him from half-hidden eyes and reaching out for him. Screaming, he tore them off himself, pushed open the door to his apartment and threw himself inside.
For long minutes, he was nothing but a shaking, shivering mess. Why had the world changed to… this? The phone, where was his phone? He had to call someone, anyone, had to tell them… He stopped. The phone, he remembered something about his phone.
“Never call me again, you creep! Leave me alone!”
The words reverberated in his head, mocking him. A call no, a voice message. Emotions came flooding over him, embarrassment, sadness and finally despair. Matthew felt tears coming to his eyes without knowing why.
Next door, the neighbors were screaming at one another. Their voices had become distorted and animalistic, barely resembling those of humans. And yet, he still heard it, still heard the she-beast next door growling about her special dish.
“No one cares about your special dish!” he screamed at the greasy living room wall.
Matthew stepped forward to pound his fists against it, to make his rage heard, but instead of hitting a solid surface, his fists sank into the greasy mess that had replaced it. He cringed back while the animalistic argument next door continued undeterred.
“Be quiet! Shut up!”
Other memories flooded his mind, other voices.
“Oh god, no,” he pressed out when he remembered what he’d done.
His anger dissipated and was replaced by apathy. He slumped down on the couch.
Finally, Matthew remembered.
The special dish. While he’d overheard his neighbors talking about their special dish, he’d prepared one of his very own. The aspirin, he remembered. No, not just the aspirin, any medication he’d found. He’d downed it all, his very own special dish, to end his miserable life.
But then, what was this world? Was this hell? His very own private hell?
What if he was dying right now and a last surge of brain activity was replaying his final conscious moments repeatedly? Maybe this nightmarish world was nothing but a cruel, never-ending mockery of Zeno’s paradox?
He sat in his hellish apartment. An apartment filled with heavy, greasy air that made his lungs hurt and his head throb. An apartment that was slowly being flooded by the disgusting brownish soup and the horrors that populated it.
If this was caused by his brain shutting down and his memories deteriorating, would each iteration of this hellscape become worse?
And as he sat there, Matthew hoped, no prayed for only a single thing.
That this endless loop would be over and the neighbors would finally finish their special dish.