Aphelion Issue 263, Volume 25
July 2021
 
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Family Recipe

by Robert Moriyama


"You should try to lose some weight," Doctor Schimmel said. "Even five or ten pounds would bring down your blood pressure and blood sugar by enough to get by without resorting to medication."

Avram Greenbaum nodded, sighing. "The needle on the scale just doesn't seem to want to go below 185, unless I skip eating for a couple of days at a time. And the first few pounds is ‘water weight' anyway, so it comes right back when I start eating normally again."

Doctor Schimmel laughed. "Maybe you just need to reconsider your definition of ‘eating normally'," he said. "Or try to exercise a bit more. Walking, climbing stairs, that sort of thing. Park a little further away from the building when you go shopping. Join a gym."

"I belonged to a gym for a while, a long time ago," Avram said. "For a few months, I went three times a week, worked up a good sweat. I did lose a few pounds, though not as much as you would think, with all that grunting and groaning."

Doctor Schimmel picked up a pencil and began to gnaw on the eraser end, occasionally removing it from his mouth in the classic two-fingered smoker's grip. He noticed Avram's quizzical look and said, "Sorry. I quit smoking years ago, but my hands still remember."

Avram said nothing, being less than comfortable hearing such things from the man entrusted with the health and well-being of Mrs. Greenbaum's favorite son. "Anyway," he concluded, "after a while, I just didn't have the time and energy to keep going. You know how it is; at first, working out is sort of interesting, learning the routine, testing your limits. But once you get into it, it gets boring, and it becomes too much like a job. An unpaid, sweaty, smelly job."

Doctor Schimmel tapped the sharpened end of his pencil in the bottom of a shallow bowl, then released the pencil so it rested with the point in the bowl and the shaft leaning against the rim. "Habit," he said. "This one is better than actually smoking, but I know how strange it looks. In any case, I guess you're telling me that joining a health club probably won't work for you."

He scribbled a few notes in Avram's file, using a pen he produced from the pocket of his jacket (instead of the somewhat mangled pencil, or one of its still-pristine cousins). "Let's try this, then. You try to watch what you eat, cut down a bit on snacks and desserts, and you try to walk a little more, climb stairs more often . . ."

"My knees bother me," Avram reminded him. "Too many stairs and they end up aching by the end of the day."

The doctor blinked, obviously fighting the urge to roll his eyes in exasperation. "Fine," he said. "No health clubs, no stairs. A little more caution in what and how much you eat, and a little more walking. In, say, six weeks, come back, and we'll see how you are doing."

"I'll do my best, Doctor Schimmel," Avram said.

"Make an appointment with Jean on your way out," Schimmel said. "For about six weeks from now."

"I will," Avram said. He stood and walked out into the reception area.

After setting up the follow-up appointment with Jean, Avram left the doctor's office and took the stairs down to the ground floor: four flights, or about 3 flights more than his knees could stand.

The smell of fresh bagels from the bakery on the corner flooded his mouth with saliva and pulled him toward the bakery door like a well-cast fishing fly. He stopped just outside the open door, shaking his head.

"I have to watch what I eat," he said. "Hundreds of calories in one of those bagels, and that's without the lox and cream cheese!" He turned, and walked back toward his car. His feet seemed to weigh ten pounds each, which made his knees ache even more.

"The doctor just doesn't understand," Avram said to himself. "It's hard to keep from eating when everywhere I turn, there are such wonderful smells." On the drive home, he had to pass two more bakeries, a delicatessen, and a fried chicken franchise. He kept the windows rolled up and the air conditioning set to recirculate, but the aromas of the food still seemed to penetrate his rolling fortress. The fried chicken scent in particular had him swallowing repeatedly to avoid drooling all over his tie, and he didn't even like that brand of chicken very much.

He was almost afraid to enter his apartment building. Many of the residents were recent immigrants, from the same areas of Central and Eastern Europe as Avram's own family, and on any given night, at least one family on every floor seemed to be cooking something wonderful. The hallways, the elevators, and especially the stairwells were always filled with hints of simmering onions, tomatoes, garlic, paprika, and bay leaves; Avram always had to stuff something edible in his mouth the moment he entered his apartment to dull his hunger long enough to prepare his own meal.

He looked down at the paunch that had grown slowly, subtly, around his midsection, until he had developed the kind of protruding gut that he had always mocked in others. Maybe if he used celery and carrots into his mouth as a pre-meal pacifier instead of cookies and doughnuts, he could lose weight.

"Pencils would be about as appetizing," he muttered.

He opened the side door and started up the stairs, wincing as he felt the bones and connective tissues in his knees shifting at every step. Then he stopped, stomach churning, as the odor permeating the stairwell settled over him like a mildewed blanket.

He had participated in a boxing class once, quitting after it became painfully apparent that his talents in the art of fisticuffs lay mainly in the area of profuse bleeding. During the few weeks before his mother had finally convinced Mr. Greenbaum to allow his son to drop out of the program, Avram had become very familiar with the smell and taste of blood, his own blood mainly, but also the blood of others whose noses and lips were flattened or mangled by the more proficient students.

That smell (and thus, that taste) now insinuated itself into his nostrils and mouth and lungs. It was like sucking on a penny and biting a piece of tinfoil while drinking warm cooking oil -- metallic, thick, overpowering. There were hints of other things -- garlic, certainly, maybe onions, some kind of oil -- but the scent of blood smothered everything else.

Avram gagged. This was one cooking smell that did not make him hungry. He hurried up the stairs and half-limped, half-ran to his apartment, trying to breathe shallowly through his mouth only.

With the apartment door closed, and the air conditioner and exhaust fan turned to maximum, the rank odor faded to a more tolerable level, but it did not completely dissipate. "My clothes, my hair," Avram groaned. He stripped, stuffing everything except his shoes into a garbage bag for delivery to the dry cleaner. He could only hope that the shoe leather would not absorb the smell as much as more porous materials had done.

A quick shower, using strongly-scented soap and shampoo he had purchased by accident, left him feeling somewhat less like a denizen of a slaughterhouse. While his hair dried, he padded barefoot into the kitchen to consider what (if anything) his stomach could tolerate after the brutal assault his palate had just endured.

He was oddly pleased to find that he was still not hungry. "This is one way to lose weight," he said, "although the cleaning bills are likely to be a little steep." Instead of hunger, he felt an overwhelming sense of curiosity. Who was cooking the bloody whatever-it-was? Hadn't anyone complained?

He picked up the phone and began calling the dozen or so families in the building with whom he had become friendly over the years. Surely someone would know who was responsible for this olfactory apocalypse.

A dozen phone calls later, he had reached eight answering machines, and four lines that went unanswered after ringing for minutes at a time. It was as if he was the only one in the building aside from the unknown gory gourmet.

Avram frowned. It was highly unusual for so many of his neighbors to be out of the building at this time of the day. Several -- Mr. Goldwyn on the fifth floor, for example -- were confined to their apartments due to their infirmities, venturing out only when family members or friends were able to escort them to appointments or other functions.

For a moment, he felt panic rising. "Did they evacuate the building? Maybe this stuff does more than smell bad -- maybe it's toxic!"

Then he remembered that Mr. Goldwyn's niece in Ottawa was getting married this week, and Mr. Goldwyn had mentioned that he would be away for a few days. There were plenty of reasons why any of the neighbors in his address book might be out of the building, even the shut-ins; it was improbable, but by no means impossible, that they all had special appointments to keep on the same day. For those who had full mobility, the blood scent alone was probably enough reason to go elsewhere until the "atmosphere" improved.

So, here he was, probably safe enough, but still much more curious than he was hungry. Unfortunately, satisfying his curiosity in the absence of better-informed neighbors would require venturing out into the gag-inducing air outside the apartment.

After a few abortive attempts to distract himself with television (all reruns), magazines, and e-mail (spam spam spam spam spam, like the old Monty Python restaurant skit), Avram surrendered. He pulled his already-contaminated clothes from their green plastic quarantine and dressed, grumbling as he realized that the sweet scents of the soap and shampoo actually made the clothes smell worse. He managed to find an old filter mask left over from his brief foray into furniture refinishing, and slipped it over his nose and mouth. A few experimental breaths confirmed that the mask did indeed lessen the suffocating smell of blood, although it did so partly by exuding fumes from furniture stripping solution and shellac.

Bracing himself, Avram opened the door and leaped out into the corridor, pulling the door shut behind him. He engaged the deadbolt locks, then turned to contemplate the problem at hand: how to find the one apartment out of over one hundred from which the incredibly stench was emanating.

Finally, he decided to try to identify the floor by comparing the concentration of the odor in the stairwell from landing to landing. This took much longer than he might have hoped, and his leg muscles were twitching with fatigue by the time he had satisfied himself that the eighth floor smelled worse than any other.

"On the plus side, all this exercise must have earned me at least one nice cheese blintz," he said, "though God knows when I'll get my appetite back."

A careful search of the eighth floor soon revealed that the odor was strongest outside the door to Suite 813. "Funny, I thought the Silversteins lived here. And they always eat out."

Avram knocked, timidly at first, then hard enough to make his knuckles sting. "Mr. Silverstein, are you there? I need to talk to you!"

Avram could discern odd noises from Suite 813, thumping and scraping and what might have been a muttered curse, but no one came to the door. After a few minutes, he knocked again, calling, "Hello! Is anyone home? I really need to talk to you!"

The door opened suddenly, revealing a man whom Avram had never seen in the building before. Upon reflection, he was rather glad that he had never run into this individual, especially at night.

"You come to complain about the smell, eh?" the man said. His voice was deep and hoarse and thick with an accent that Avram couldn't quite identify. He seemed to be shorter than Avram, although he would surely be a few inches taller if he stood up straight instead of hunching forward as he did.

Avram stood frozen, mesmerized by the odd feeling he had that there was after all something familiar about the man, not in the sense that he had seen him before, but rather as if he had seen his type before. In a zoo, perhaps . . . There was something disturbing about his eyes, something that did not belong in a human face.

The stranger pulled a heavy, stained rubber glove from one hand and ran gnarled fingers through his slicked-back iron-gray hair. "Well?" he prompted, "Is it about the smell?"

"Um, yes, I'm afraid so," Avram said. "It's everywhere in the building, on every floor, in the stairwells, and it's a bit -- strong."

The man sighed. It sounded like the hissing of steam from a boiler on the verge of an explosion. "I am very sorry," he said. "This is the first time I have made the blutwurst -- blood sausage -- here. I did not know that the odor would spread this way through the building."

"The ventilation system -- there are vents in the kitchen and bathroom that feed into common pipes, I guess," Avram said. "From there, they connect to the lobby, the stairs, the hallways."

"Ah," the man said. "Nothing to be done now, except to remember not to do it again, eh?" He laughed, a harsh, grunting laugh that showed far too many teeth for Avram's tastes. The teeth themselves were rather odd, at that.

Avram nodded. "I suppose not. Are you almost finished? Eventually, the smell will dissipate, if you're finished, I mean."

"Almost, almost," the man said. "Perhaps you would like to try some? It is better when it has been hung for a while, but if you fry it up with some onions, it is quite good even when it is fresh."

Avram felt his stomach lurch. "I -- um -- thank you, no. I have some -- um -- errands to run."

"Are you sure? It is a family recipe, my people are quite famous for it."

Avram nodded again, grateful that the filter mask hid his look of revulsion.

"Perhaps I will bring you some later," the man said as Avram turned to flee. "Which suite is yours?"

"Please, don't trouble yourself," Avram said. "I couldn't possibly accept such a generous gift." He managed to make it through the door to the stairwell before the stranger could insist.

A nagging sense of foreboding led Avram to stop on the seventh floor rather than returning immediately to his fifth-floor apartment. The Rosenbergs lived in Suite 713, directly below the sausage-cook's unit. He wondered how they were coping, with little Ruthie to worry about. The little girl had always suffered from a sensitive stomach, and this sort of thing would be hard on her.

He knocked on the Rosenberg's door. "Misha, Anna, are you home? It's me, Avram. I was wondering how you were holding up, with this awful smell everywhere."

The door swung open, although the door handle had not moved. Avram glanced at the sockets in the doorframe where the deadbolts and the spring latch should have been seated and gasped when he saw polished metal stubs in each niche. It looked like the bolts and the latch had been cut cleanly by an impossibly sharp blade. A look at the edge of the door confirmed this impression; the bolts must have been engaged, the door locked, when something had sheared through them.

Avram entered the apartment slowly, afraid of what he might find. After a moment, he scratched his head in puzzlement. Everything looked perfect -- really too perfect, for the home of an active six-year-old child. There were no signs of a struggle, no indication that any valuables had been disturbed.

"Why would someone cut through locks like that, and then take nothing?" he wondered. "It must have taken some kind of special tools, expensive ones, to do that."

He moved carefully through the apartment, listening intently for any indication that the lock-cutting intruder might still be there. Each room looked pristine and undisturbed, aside from little Ruthie's room, where toys were scattered across the floor and every other flat surface. Avram guessed that the mess was probably normal for a child's room in the early evening, and continued on to the kitchen.

Here, too, everything looked normal, except that the refrigerator door was slightly ajar. Avram moved to push it closed, then hesitated. It was the only thing that seemed odd -- aside from the ruined deadbolt locks . . . He opened the refrigerator and peered inside.

Instead of the expected assortment of vegetables, milk, meat, and condiments, the shelves held coil after coil of sausages. The color was unusually uniform -- a deep, reddish brown with almost no mottling or variation. And the smell --

"Blutwurst," Avram said. "Blood sausage."

The strange man in Suite 813 must have insisted that the Rosenbergs accept some of his handiwork as compensation for the bad smells. But why would the Rosenbergs take so much that they had to take out everything else in the refrigerator? It made no sense.

"Did Mr. 813 break in here, just to fill the icebox with his sausages?" Avram wondered. "He looked like a peculiar fellow, but could he be that peculiar?"

He turned, his gaze bouncing randomly around the room as he tried to digest this latest helping of weirdness. Then something caught his eye, something small and pink on the floor under the kitchen table.

He crouched, suppressing a yelp as his abused knees popped and sent pain zigzagging up his spine. Supporting his weight on one hand, he reached under the table and managed to snag the unidentified bit of pink debris.

As he brought the object out into the light, he cried out in shock and revulsion and hurled it away. He fell back against the cupboards, his feet skittering against the tiled floor as he tried to move as far from the pink thing as he could.

"A finger," he sobbed, "a child's finger, Ruthie's finger."

Suddenly Avram understood what had happened in his building, what might still be happening. Mr. 813 had said that his sausages were made using a family recipe. He had meant it, too. The sausages in the refrigerator a few (far too few) feet away had been made from the Rosenberg family; in other apartments, in other refrigerators, there would be other batches.

Avram scrambled to his feet, lunging for the telephone on the wall. He fumbled the receiver off the hook, almost dropping it, then stabbed out 9-1-1.

"Murder, he's killed -- he's killing -- send the police, send the police, 2098 Cedarvale Crescent, go to 813 -- "

His voice trailed off as he realized that the telephone was dead. Of course, it had to be dead (as dead as the Rosenbergs), or someone would have called for help.

His cellphone was back in his briefcase, in his apartment. Avram let the receiver drop, wincing as it bounced off the wall. He ran, the pain in his legs forgotten, caroming off the walls like a pinball as he scrambled toward the stairwell.

He stumbled on the stairs, landing hard and wrenching his shoulder, but managed to pick himself up and move on. Panic drowned the pain in his back, his shoulder, his knees, panic sent him diving down three more flights and out into the fifth floor hallway.

Gasping for breath, muscles jumping from exhaustion, he pushed the key into the first deadbolt lock -- and the door swung open, because the bolts and the latch had been cut cleanly, with a single stroke of an impossibly sharp blade.

"Come in, Avram," Mr. 813 said. "You are the last one today. I must finish up here, I have to move on to my next location."

Avram tried to scream, tried to turn and run, but found himself paralyzed. His eyes, he thought helplessly, there's something about his eyes. Then the blade in Mr. 813's hand sliced through Avram's neck as easily as a flame through cobwebs, and Avram saw his own body cartwheel past as his head tumbled to the floor.

As consciousness faded, he could see Mr. 813's feet, and his own feet, then the rest of his body as it tumbled to the floor. But there was no blood.

"Of course there is no blood, Mr. Greenbaum. I never spill a drop," Mr. 813 said. "Waste not, want not."

THE END


© 2007 Robert Moriyama

Bio: Robert Moriyama has been the Aphelion Short Story Editor for almost three years, stumbling blindly in the footsteps of Cary Semar... He is the author of about a dozen (so far) stories featuring Al Majius and friends, and several entries in the "Nightwatch" series. This particular story has been lurking in his "trunk" for a while, and seemed appropriate as a "bonus" story for our just-past-Hallowe'en issue.

E-mail: Robert Moriyama

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