“Scent” – Fiction by Cooper Wilhelm

Soir d’orage, Strange Perfume by Mem – Rene Magritte, 1946

A young man’s bargain with a mysterious shopkeeper has some revolting repercussions in “Scent,” Cooper Wilhelm‘s magically disturbing story from our super-spooky Fall 2017 issue.

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THE PORTION OF THE INTERROGATION THAT FOLLOWS was entered into the public record as part of a murder trial that commenced in the Eastern District Court of New York on August 14th, 2015. The suspect [name withheld] is described as male, Caucasian, DOB 12/5/1986, Height 5’ 11”, weight 190 lbs. The interview was conducted by Detective [name withheld] of the New York Police Department 94th precinct, 100 Meserole Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 11222.]

INTERVIEWER: When did you first meet [name redacted]?

SUSPECT: In the shop. I was walking past two weeks ago and I could smell the incense. My girlfriend had been ragging me for weeks about how my room smells bad. Like a men’s—like a boy’s locker room. So I figured I’d get some.

INTERVIEWER: And you talked to him then?

SUSPECT: Not at first. I was looking around, picking up different kinds of incense and smelling them. But they had all this hooky-dooky stuff, too.

INTERVIEWER: “Hooky-dooky stuff”?

SUSPECT: Yeah, like crystals, star maps, and like, these little white sticks he said would clean bad spirits out of stuff or something if you burned them. It was all like stuff I’d hear people in my Warcraft guild say they needed for a raid, but in real life. And not cheap.

INTERVIEWER: So that’s when the two of you started talking?

SUSPECT: Yeah. I’m buying the incense and I ask, you know, like making conversation, is this your shop? how long you been selling stuff like this?

And he’s like oh we’ve been doing this for a couple years. We used to be a perfume shop, but we couldn’t make ends meet. And then I tried this money incense and I thought I should start selling it and I branched into other magic whatever since then.

And he starts talking about the crystals and about talking to ghosts and spirits and gods and it’s creeping me out. And the credit card machine won’t work and I start really wanting to leave, like I’m getting the willies from this guy, and he’s sweating a little as he talks to me, and his eyes were, um, they were. . . .


SUSPECT: They were too big. Maybe it was because he was so tall. A lot of people are taller than me, but he was a lot taller. Like 6’ 8”– 6’ 9”. So he felt threatening. He loomed.

INTERVIEWER: Did he threaten you then?

SUSPECT: No, not then, no. He just told me he would give me a free sample of this cologne. And he pulls down this big plastic bottle, like the kind bulk cheap paint would come in in art class. He squeezes out this dark oil, like purple but almost black. And he tells me all cologne and perfume is oil, it’s just that the stuff people buy is watered down usually. This is the pure stuff. And he puts some on my finger for me to smell.

INTERVIEWER: What did it smell like?

SUSPECT: Weird. I mean, I don’t know how cologne is supposed to smell. I mostly just use Axe. But this smelled weird. Like ammonia and rust.

I really just wanted to get out of there because he keeps staring at me. Even when he puts some cologne in a little vial and hands it to me he never stops looking at me.

INTERVIEWER: Did you leave then or stay longer to chat?

SUSPECT: That’s it. I go home and I make dinner. And that would’ve been the end of it. But when I’m pulling stuff out of the fridge, I see this thing on my finger. It was gooey, like three soft little yellow eggs or little balls or something, that were sticking to my finger with this yellow goop. Like what wasps use to stick their hives to the undersides of roofs.

I washed my hands. I figured it’d gotten on me on the subway, but now I think maybe it was on those little sticks I picked up at the store.

INTERVIEWER: And that got it off?

SUSPECT: It looked fine. I ate dinner and I went to sleep. But I kept having these awful dreams. Like one where I was thirsty and no matter how much water I drank, I would stay thirsty. I was drinking anything with any water in it. Squeezing the water out of wet trash in the street, licking water off people’s cars when it rained. And I’d always stay really thirsty.

And this other one where I was all wet, no matter how much I dried myself. And I realized it was because all this liquid was leaking out of me. I could never stay dry and eventually all my skin turned gray and rotted off.

INTERVIEWER: So you had bad dreams?

SUSPECT: Right. But when I woke up, it must have been 1 or 2 in the morning, and my finger was throbbing. Where he had put the cologne there was this raised red patch. So I got out of bed and I went to the sink and I tried rinsing it off. But it just kept burning and pulsing.

I tried to go back to sleep but I just couldn’t. I kept tossing and turning. I think I had a fever. I kept having weird half-thoughts. And somehow, after maybe an hour of this, I knew—I KNEW—that what I needed to do was get more of that cologne on my finger. So I went and I grabbed the vial. I rubbed some of the perfume on and it felt better. But the rash or whatever it was was getting bigger.

I knew I needed more of that stuff. So I got out of bed and I went over to the shop. It was still dark out, but I knew I needed it. And I kept reaching into my pocket and dabbing some of the cologne on my finger when the throbbing came back.

INTERVIEWER: And it helped with the throbbing?

SUSPECT: It always made it go away. It even started to feel kind of good putting it on. Like when you go home and you wake up because your mom’s cooking and you can smell it. That feeling.

And I was standing by the door when the dude came to open the shop. And he’s all like back so soon? Like he didn’t know! And I tell him, I say I need more of the stuff. And he takes his time opening the door. Like he pretends he can’t find the right key. He’s enjoying this shit!

We get in there and I say I want two bottles of the stuff he gave me the day before.

And he’s like This is the pure stuff. It’s expensive. One bottle’s gonna cost 70 dollars.

So I go to an ATM down the street. It’s next to a little parking lot. Covered in spray paint. And I don’t like it—it seems suspect. But I need this stuff. So I take out the money and I buy three bottles and I take them home.

And that’s good for a few days. The rash is getting bigger, it’s spread to my whole right hand and there’s a little on the other hand. But I know what to do now and I have the stuff.

INTERVIEWER: What did people at your job say?

SUSPECT: I called in sick.

INTERVIEWER: Your girlfriend?

SUSPECT:  I kept making excuses not to see her until this thing cleared up.

INTERVIEWER: What did you do when you ran out?

SUSPECT: I went to get more. I went to the ATM near the store. And the rash had started moving up my right arm but I think It’s fine. I just need more of the stuff and it’ll be fine. But the screen says “Insufficient Funds” and that my balance is 200 dollars overdrawn.

And I realize someone must have cloned my card when I used the ATM before. But now my fingers ache so bad I can barely use them and I drop the card trying to put it in my pocket and I can’t pick it up and I keep trying and I can’t pick it up. But I think It’ll be fine. I have a credit card. I just need more of my stuff and then I can come back and get the card. But I realize I’m not thinking it I’m saying it out loud and then I start shaking all over and I realize my forehead is covered in sweat and my heart is beating too fast.

So I go back to the shop and I tell him I need some more and he says the credit card machine is still broken and I tell him please man please there was just a mix up at the bank and if he just gives me some I can get him the money later today. He says I can just come back when I have the money. And I tell him I need it now and my mouth has gone dry and my arm is on fire all the way up to my shoulder and I ask him please just a little I need it, man, please.

And he says no. You can come with me, I say. You can come with me to the bank and watch and I’ll give you the money and he says no and I say please I need it man I need it I need it please don’t do this to me I’m dying please man jesus christ please.

And he just, he just looks away from me. He won’t even look at me.

And he starts walking over to the door and I think no no no please no don’t kick me out I need this I really need this. And I start to think maybe I can grab some of the stuff and run out and then things will be fine and I can figure out what to do next later. Even if he threw me out, if he could just give me a little.

But he goes over to the door and he locks it. And he says follow me if you please. Real genteel, real fucking continental. And he leads me to the back of the shop and to a door.

And he pulls out a key and he unlocks the door and we go down these old wooden steps into a basement. And my arm starts burning worse, and the rashes on my left hand start throbbing and throbbing.

And this basement smells like mildew and sour milk. And the only thing in this cellar is an old green refrigerator. And he walks me over to the refrigerator and he opens it up. He’s taken all the shelves out. And in the middle of the fridge is a huge plastic bucket reaching up as high as my waist. It’s full of this thick purple-black liquid. It’s so thick you can’t see through it. And he reaches and pulls a small jar out of the fridge door. And he goes to close the door, but before he did, I think I saw something in the giant bucket move. Like something was pulling the inky black stuff down just a little bit.

And he swings around holding this little jar. It’s full of yellow slime and the slime has some kind of animal in it. It looked kind of like a baby, but its body was too skinny. It had huge black eyes and feathery gills on its neck. It might have been dead. It didn’t move. And it seemed like maybe it had lost a hand on one of its little arms.

He pulls a spoon off the top of the fridge. And he sticks the spoon into the jar pushing all the way to the bottom, avoiding the little animal. He scoops something off the bottom and drags the spoon along the side of the jar until he can lift it out.

There’s something I need from you he says. I want you to hold this under your tongue. I’ll give you all the product you need. Come any time. You just have to do this one thing for me.

I looked at the spoon and I thought There’s no way I’m putting whatever that is in my mouth. But then I could feel my arm go again. It’s like it’s on a stove it’s burning so hot. And I think all I need is the stuff and I’ll be fine. If I can man up and do this then I’ll get the stuff and everything will be fine.

I tell him to give it to me. I take the spoon, and in it there’s this thick yellow goop with two soft little balls in it like little fish eggs. I asked him how long he wants me to hold it there and he says Only 30 seconds, not even a minute. One moment and then you can have what you want and all this will be over.

I move it to my mouth and when I smell it I almost—I start to dry heave a little. It was like bile. I push it past my lips and hold it under my tongue. And it feels hot. I had seen him take it from the fridge but whatever was on the spoon was hot like fresh bread.

The tall man holds one finger up while looking at his watch. That’s it he keeps saying, cooing it like to a baby. Almost done. You’re doing great.

My tongue starts going numb and my mouth feels like it’s filling up with spit. Then he tells me I’m all done, that I can take the spoon out. There is still some of the yellow stuff on it, but the little balls were gone.

I follow him back up to the shop and he tells me I’d made the right decision. He gives me three bottles of the stuff and tells me to come back whenever. I slather a bunch of the stuff on my arm and I leave.

INTERVIEWER: When did you go back for more?

SUSPECT: That’s the thing. When I got home, the rash was already smaller. And I realized it hadn’t hurt the whole ride back on the subway. I put a little more of the stuff on, but I felt like I didn’t even need it.

I was exhausted when I got home, so I closed the curtains and lay down. I had terrible dreams of the tall man from the incense store. Dreams where he was leading me down into my own grave. Dreams where he was eating my legs while I watched. Dreams where he tore out my tongue.

And when I woke up it was morning. But earlier in the morning. I looked at my phone and I had slept two days.

My head was throbbing and I had really bad dry mouth. It was like the worst hangover I’d ever had. I tried to get up from the bed, but I got woozy and had to sit back down again. My tongue felt thick and hot. My whole face felt heavy. I went to the bathroom mirror, and my cheeks were all swollen. I looked like one of Alvin and the Chipmunks, ya know?  I tried to drink some water, but my throat felt all closed up. Like it was only the size of a sippy straw.

INTERVIEWER: Did you go to a doctor?

SUSPECT: No. My rash was all gone and I figured that this was just part of me finally getting better. Like, as long as I didn’t use the stuff, I could sleep it all off. Thing was, the whole apartment smelled like it.


SUSPECT: Like the cologne stuff that had given me the rash.  Everything. Even my breath kind of smelled like it.

So I went back to bed and tried to sleep it all off. And I had more and more nightmares. And in one, I woke up with the tall man from the shop straddling my chest, holding me down. I tried to get up but I was too weak. I said how did you find me? And he sniffs in real hard and he says I followed the smell.

He reaches down toward his leg, but I can’t see what he’s reaching for. And he says This will only take a second. You’re my golden boy now, you know that. My little, juicy plum.

He lifts his arm up, and he’s holding a syringe. But the part that holds stuff, like where the medicine would be, it’s huge. The size of a baby bottle. And he says You might feel a slight prick.

And now I’m trying as hard as I can to throw him off of me, but my body feels like it’s made out of sand. All my limbs are so heavy. I keep trying to hit his legs, but I can’t even make a fist.

And he’s singing, like a lullaby, he’s singing. I have taken the plums. Forgive me. They were delicious. So sweet and so cold. So sweet and so cold. And the needle is getting closer and closer to my face. It’s right above my eye. So sweet and so cold. So sweet and so cold. I try to turn away, but he grabs me by the chin and turns me back. He says If you keep fidgeting I might hurt you by accident. Hold still for the choo choo, little plum.

He takes the needle and he slides it into my cheek, just below my eye. And it’s not even that it hurts so much as I can feel this pressure. Maybe it would have been better if it hurt.

And he pulls back the plunger and the needle’s filling with this purple black stuff. And it’s thick. He has to hold the needle with one hand and pull the plunger back with the other. I can feel the inside of my cheek pulling away from my tongue. So sweet and so cold. So sweet and so cold. I can feel my hot tears on my cheek, but I don’t know what to do. And he pulls the needle out and says I’ll be back for the other one soon, sweet plum. Rest up. You don’t look so good.

And when I wake up, it’s the middle of the day. And I get up to go to the bathroom and pee and maybe try to drink some water. And when I see myself in the mirror, my left cheek is all shriveled up and bruised. There’s a bump around a little circular scab just under my eye, like a bee sting.

I realized it wasn’t a dream. He was in my room. The tall man was in my room.

I threw up into the sink. And when I threw up it was jet black. After a few seconds, my eyes refocused. There was something in the sink. Something wriggling. Like a little black tadpole. I picked up a glass I keep my toothbrush in and tried to crush it, but I was so weak the glass just bounced. I tried again and the glass shattered. I cut my finger real bad, and I just stood there crying. It wasn’t fair. None of it was fair. This was going to be the rest of my life and I didn’t know what to do.

INTERVIEWER: Is that when you went back to the shop?

SUSPECT: Yes. I went back. I threw up again on the subway and stamped down a few more of those tadpole things.

When I got there, the tall man was all friendly. Oh, you’re back so soon! Would you like more cologne? Come, let’s talk in the basement.

And he went to lock the front door, but I grabbed his wrist and I told him Fix this. Get these things out of me.

INTERVIEWER: Did he seem frightened?

SUSPECT: I was so weak. I barely slowed him down. He locked the front door with me still clinging to his wrist and then he grabbed my hand and pulled me across the room and down the stairs to his cellar.

He pulled me over to the fridge and I was pleading with him Please just take these out and I’ll never bother you again. Please, you don’t even need to take them out of me. Just let me go and I can figure it out.

He pulled me over to his big fridge and opened the door. And there was the huge bucket full of black stuff. And there was a little ripple that ran through it, like ridges moving just under the surface.

And he was saying People like you are all the same. You try to back out when you’re already committed. You say you want less at the very minute when all you need is more and more and more. But don’t worry, little plum. I know what you need. I’m going to give you just what you need. So sweet.

I was crying. I couldn’t do anything and I was crying and he was running his fingers through my hair singing to me so quiet. So sweet. So cold. So sweet. So cold.

And then he pushed my head down toward the bucket. I tried. You have to understand I tried so hard to hold my head up, but I was so weak. I tried to brace myself against the sides of the refrigerator, but all my strength was gone and my hand hurt so badly from the cut. And seeing my own blood smear on the fridge where I tried to push back took so much fight out of me.

And he just kept singing So sweet so cold so sweet so cold as my face got closer and closer to the purple-black stuff in the bucket. All I could hear was his singing until he pushed my face in up to my ears. And then I couldn’t hear anything.

And I thought maybe if he just killed me it would be easier. I was never going to get these things out of me. I should just let him drown me.

But I could feel something. Something was moving in the liquid, brushing against my face. It would touch my cheek and draw back and then touch my lips. I closed my mouth as tight as I could, but it kept pushing, trying to push past my lips.

And I tried to lift my head up, but he was just holding it down so hard. But I realized he was only holding it down. Down and towards him a little. So I went with him.

INTERVIEWER: Went with him?

SUSPECT: Instead of trying to pull away I went down further and curled up. I hit him in the shins with my back.

Moving like that tipped the big bucket over and everything in it started spilling out of the fridge and all over the floor. He screamed. We were both covered in this thick purple-black stuff. And when my eyes cleared a little I saw that he was on the other side of the room, bent over, trying to catch something in his hands.

He had his back to me. It was like he’d forgotten about me.

I got up and I ran.

INTERVIEWER: Back up the stairs?

SUSPECT: No, no, at him. I ran at him. I ran at him as hard as I could. And I crashed into him with all my weight. And it pushed his head into the cement wall of the basement. And there was this sound like a bunch of glass marbles hitting each other. Like when you crack your knuckles, but higher pitched and so much louder. I can still hear it a little. Like when doors click shut.

We both fell on the floor and I scrambled to my feet.

INTERVIEWER: Was he dead?

SUSPECT: I don’t think so. He was bleeding from one of his ears, but I think he was alive then. I know he was.

INTERVIEWER: Is that when you mutilated his body? As revenge?


INTERVIEWER: It’s completely understandable. After what he did to you. You mutilated his body.

SUSPECT: No. I didn’t do it, that’s what I keep telling you. I let him die, sure, but that was self-defense.

It was the thing. The thing from the bucket. It pushed out of the shadows and started tugging at his neck. Tearing at it with its teeth.

INTERVIEWER: What did this thing look like?

SUSPECT: It was tearing at his neck. And then it found his mouth and It went in. It went inside him. And I could see it pushing his throat up. I could see it make his stomach move up and down like he had the hiccups. Like he was laughing.

And I left him to it. I should have. He tried to kill me. But his eyes went wide. It was moving inside him and he was staring at me asking for help and I left him to it.

It was alive inside of him and I left him.

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COOPER WILHELM is the author of Klaatu Verata Nikto, (Ghost City Press 2016), a microchapbook about necromancy and breakups; of DUMBHEART/STUPIDFACE (Siren Songs 2017); and of an as of yet untitled chapbook about pigs from Business Bear Press. He hosts Into the Dark, a talk show about witchcraft on Radio Free Brooklyn. He also sends poems on postcards to randomly selected strangers at PoetryAndStrangers.com.  He tweets @CooperWilhelm.

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