I open my eyes to decaying plaster, exposed pipes leaking from broken walls. Dirty water drips down and soaks into my shirt, and I shudder with sudden chill. Groaning, every joint aching, I sit up and try to wring it out. All I manage is getting my hands filthy and spreading the stain further.

The shirt a lost cause, I give up and promise to burn the thing later. Instead I look around the room, and it’s not any more enticing. Dirty carpeting, caked with mold and forgotten junk food wrappers, fails to cover the gaps in a floor that’s no better than the walls. Through the gaping hole where a door should be the hallway is just as bad, filled with trash and debris.

One corner of the room is filled with a dirty mattress as damp as everything else, a threadbare blanket spreading over it like mud. Next to it are stacks of magazines, the pages worn, and a beaten up old radio. I take a step to look more closely, but the scent of rot wafts up from the shadows in the corner and I back away, waving a hand in front of my face.

“What a shithole…”

Cold breath from over my shoulder, right into my ear, and it’s like someone just poured ice into my skull. I jump up and slap the side of my head, turning around so fast I almost slam my face into a wall as I trip over my own feet. I manage to catch myself with my other hand, hissing as a rusty pipe cuts into skin, and I try to find who had snuck up behind me.

There’s no one here.

The room is empty, save for the mattress, the magazines, and the radio. The carpet squishes underfoot as I take a step back, only to feel that same freezing breath coming from the other side. I scream and lash out, my bloody hand flailing, but only strike empty air.

“Christ,” I manage, heading for the hallway with one hand rubbing the back of my neck. “To hell with this.”

I step out of the room and find myself right back inside.

Blinking, I look out at the hallway. Then I try again for the exit and find myself back in the same den of rot. My stomach churns, and I have to keep a hand over my mouth to keep from throwing up as I run again for the hallway. I only just keep myself from crashing into that disgusting mattress as its musty stink washes over me and I gag.

“Real funny,” I mutter, still struggling to keep my stomach from coming up my throat. “Real fucking funny. I swear to God I’m gonna-”

Once again breath like ice blows right into my ear, and my spine locks up. I gasp, taking in a big lungful of rancid air, and I can’t hold it back anymore. I try to lean over to vomit, but my back won’t bend. All warmth has been pulled away from me and my blood has frozen solid. My muscles clench so tight I feel like I’m going to burst, and I’m choking on my own sick as it dribbles out of my mouth.

I can’t breathe. I’m trying to scream but I can’t get enough air in my lungs past bitter acid. Salvation comes when my knees give out and I fall over on my side, pale orange liquid spilling thickly from my lips as gravity draws it away.

“Stop that!” I shriek, scrabbling to my knees and spinning around. There’s still no one else in the room. “Just stop it!”

The only response is static from the radio as it turns on. I weakly twist my neck towards it, trying not to heave again with the reek of the mattress and my own vomit. With effort I force myself to take shallow breaths, and it’s all I can do to keep from choking again.

Boom! The familiar thunder of gunfire blasts out from the radio and fills the room with an electric squeal. One burst, and then another and another in quick succession. But even through the roar I hear the screams, pain and fear so strong that it fills the room and knifes into me. Then comes sobbing, broken and wet, and the sound of something limp dragging itself across the ground.

One final report from the gun, and the radio is silent.

A bleeding, broken hand reaches out from behind and grabs my neck, forcing me to look back. Her face is a ruin, dirty hair and sunken eyes coated in dried blood. My throat closes shut around a panicked upswell of bile. She leans in close, and the breath that washes over me is cold.


I open my eyes to my ceiling fan slowly turning overhead, covered in sweat. For a moment all I can do is lay there with the pounding of my heartbeat in my ears, unable to move. Then with effort I turn over and out of bed, falling into the carpet of empty bottles that has taken over my apartment. They roll away from me, clinking into each other as the rank stench of stale booze wafts up from what remains of their contents.

But the ever-present squalor of my life doesn’t register. The only thing I have eyes for is my badge, lying where it fell off the nightstand days ago, gathering dust among the trash. Next to it is the newspaper, vultures recording my misery for the world to see. My face on the front page, the photo they took when I graduated from the police academy…

‘Local Officer Placed on Administrative Leave Over Killing of Homeless Woman.’

“It was a good shoot!” I hiss, trying to push back against a rising tide of despair and failing as my head goes under once again. Memories of a woman choking on blood and vomit, flailing weakly amidst the rat’s nest she’d made her home. “I thought I saw a knife… God dammit, it was a good shoot!”

The only response is cold breath on the back of my neck.