Sunrise. A knock came at Nick Braxten’s door.

“Sweetie, I’m going to bed now. Can you get the trash when you get up?”

“Yeah, Mom.”

“Thank you.”


When Nick had gotten out of the military, he had decided that if he never saw another human being again, it would be too soon. Months of sleeping in a coffin-like rack in a cramped, smelly berthing will do that to some people. At the time of his getting out, his mother had entreated him to come live with her for a few years. Instead, he rented out this cheap apartment in Chicago and applied for online classes. He didn’t bother getting a job. What the G.I. Bill’s housing allowance didn’t cover, Nick’s savings could. Nick was still a couple years away from his degree, but he was shooting for a job in system administration if he could get it. A remote job, obviously. A life of perfect solitude. A perfect plan.

Perfect, until his mother moved in with him.


Nick didn’t bother trying to get back to sleep. He was still used to getting up early. Besides, he knew that if he didn’t get the trash soon, it would start to smell, and then he wouldn’t be able to sleep whether he wanted to or not. So he got up, got dressed, and opened the door. Mother, as usual, had left the trash lying just outside of Nick’s room.

The trash, of course, was the desiccated corpse of the man that Mother had taken home last night.

“Mom,” shouted Nick, “You forgot to take off the head again!”

No response. Mother was already asleep. Mother slept like the dead.

Nick fell into a dark mood as he lumbered into his kitchen for a knife and came back to take off the head himself. It was important to take off the head. Nick hadn’t known that at first, and one or two of Mother’s early victims had been doomed to prowl the night before Nick had caught on. Once that was done, the trash went into a black garbage bag. No double bagging was necessary; the trash was always very light after being drained of its water weight. In fact, Nick poured some more mundane trash from his garbage can into the bag before taking it out.

Nick’s building was too old to have a trash chute on his floor. He’d have to take it all the way downstairs and outside to the dumpster himself. Nick stepped out of his apartment and was surprised to notice a young woman stepping into one of the elevators. The elevators had been down for weeks. Without thinking about it, Nick jogged to the elevator and slipped inside before the doors slid shut.

“Can’t believe they actually fixed these things,” said Nick.

“I know, right?” replied the woman.

They descended. For a few minutes, the only sound was the scratchy elevator-music speaker trying to stutter out 80’s pop music.

“I always see you taking out trash,” said the woman.

“Yeah,” said Nick.

Without being asked, the woman proceeded to pour out the basic trivia of her life. Her name was Anna. She was 19. She lived with two friends on the same floor as Nick. She was going to the same school as Nick, but she went to the in-person classes instead of the online ones. Anna was one of those quirky, bubbly types who used to chat with Nick on watch early in his military contract. Now as then, Nick responded with a courteous, feigned interest. It’s hard to care about some random chick’s favorite video game when you’re carrying a rifle at two in the morning. It’s even harder when you’re carrying a dead body at six.

Anna was still talking when they walked outside together. Fortunately, the school and the dumpsters were in opposite directions.

“Well, I’ll see you around,” said Anna.

“Yeah,” said Nick.

Nick went around back and tossed the trash into a dumpster. A glint of morning sunlight got caught on the building and made Nick cringe when it hit him in the eyeball.

If the Bauhaus raped a Gothic cathedral, the unwanted bastard offspring would be this apartment building. It was a tall, eight-sided tower covered in mirrored windows. The windows were broken up at regular intervals by eight, dingy, cracked stone protrusions running up the length of the building. Near the top of the tower, the building narrowed out into a large penthouse, and the protrusions transitioned into flying buttresses that jabbed into the penthouse. The building gave the overall impression of a giant spider seated on top of a pedestal.

By the time Nick got back inside, the elevators had stopped working again.

The stairwell was separated from the rest of the building by heavy, iron doors, and it was just about the only public part of the building that wasn’t plastered with windows. The flights of stairs were dimly lit with flickering, fluorescent lights, and the black stains of the mold that speckled the dark grey of the concrete walls were barely visible. At the sixth floor, Nick pulled open the door and went into the hall. The glass-lined hallways were better-lit than the stairwell, but still decidedly dim, as the building’s management did not turn on the bright yellow lights of the halls until after dark. During the day, residents were expected to navigate by whatever sunlight managed to filter through the windows, which were uniformly stained with a thick, yellow haze and dotted irregularly with every kind of airborne filth imaginable.

When Nick got back to his apartment, he sat down at his computer and started working on his courses. When the sun went down, Mother would come out. When Mother came out, Nick would go to bed.


About 27 years earlier, Barbara Fitztristatch was on a rapid rebound after her second divorce. She met Stephen Braxten at a pub just outside of Virginia Beach, where he played covers of old rock-and-roll songs with a small band of friends. Though Barb was five years younger than Steve, she was experienced. Steve, by comparison, still harbored rock-star fantasies, despite the fact that the music he liked was some 20 years out of date. Barb knew exactly what she was doing when she told Steve about her “unplanned” pregnancy about a month later.


Nick met Anna again the next day, during his weekly grocery run. She was bagging items at aisle eighteen, and she saw him before he saw her.

“Hey. Nick, right? From the building?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Nick, “paper, please.”

“Oh, sure, right,” she said, “Crazy how the elevators stopped working already, right?”


Nick helped her get the groceries bagged to speed up the process, and also because he hoped to get a certain item in the bag before Anna could see it and ask about it. Anna saw it and asked about it.

“There are earplugs here?” she asked.

“Yeah,” said Nick, “I saw them in the same aisle as the glass cleaner and stuff.”

“Huh,” said Anna, “What do you need those for?”

“Loud noises.”

Last night, Mother’s victim had screamed. A lot. Nick hadn’t gotten any sleep at all, and was currently running on caffeine. They finished bagging the groceries and Nick went home. He tried to go to bed early because he knew he needed the sleep, but the caffeine kept him up, so he just stared at the ceiling for a while. Black stains of mold marred the white plaster of the ceiling, and when the lights were out, Nick could imagine that the mold was a window into an infinite, black expanse, and when he finally got to sleep, he was thinking about the cold emptiness of space.

No screams woke Nick up that night, but he did have a dream about a formless, black cat sitting on his chest and biting him.


Steve Braxten, of course, had to give up his artistic ambitions when Nick was born. He got a job as a system administrator at a small business, and frankly he liked being at work more than he liked being at home. People at work didn’t hit him like Barbara did. The enchantress from the pub had disappeared after a few short weeks of marriage, and Barb’s terrible rages began to break loose. At first, Steve had thought that these were just mood swings due to pregnancy, but 15 years after Nick was born, her wrath had only gotten worse. At the slightest provocation, Barb was liable to shriek and pound and pummel and throw things, and the sound of screams kept Nick up most nights.

Only once in all those years did Steve Braxten dare to strike back. Steve was quickly convicted of domestic abuse, and though he was set free twelve years later, Nick hadn’t bothered to get in contact with him.


Sunrise came, with another knock, and more trash to dispose of. Nick had only just woken up, and already he felt tired. That dream about the cat always made him wake up tired for some reason. He took out the trash, and ran into Anna in the stairwell on his way up.

“Hey,” she said, “I was just thinking about you.”


Anna let loose a single, stifled chuckle. “Uh, I was just wondering, since we’re both majoring in computer science…”

Nick had no distinct recollection of telling Anna what he was studying, and had assumed that Anna had been working on some sort of liberal arts degree.

“Well,” she said, “did you ever think about switching to the in-person classes? We could be study buddies, you know?”

As a matter of fact, Nick had thought about it. His original reason for taking the online classes, to be alone, had been invalidated the night Mother had come knocking on his door. Now that he wasn’t alone, just knowing that he was under the same roof as Mother was enough to revolt him.

“Yeah,” he said, “I might do that next semester.”

“Cool,” said Anna, “I gotta go, but I’ll see you around?”



That night, Nick lost track of the time and was still up working when Mother came out. He stepped out of his room to grab another energy drink, and that’s when he saw her.

“Anna?” he asked, “What are you doing in my apartment?”

Mother grinned devilishly.

“Who’s Anna?”

Nick flinched as though he’d been punched in the face.


“Mm-hm,” Mother hummed.

“You look really young, Mom.”

“Thanks, buddy.”

“I mean, you look younger than I do.”

Mother giggled and waved a hand dismissively.

“Oh, stop it.”

It had been months since Nick had actually laid eyes on Mother. When she’d first come knocking after the incident, she’d looked haggard, pale, and corpse-like. Tonight, she looked like a young woman of anywhere from 17 to 21 years of age, sporting a tight, black dress that concealed no secrets from her son’s rapidly-moving eyes.

“Aren’t you usually in bed by now?” asked Mother, “I know you’re working real hard on your studies.”

Mother opened the fridge and seemed to bend over a bit further than necessary to reach in and grab something.

“I, uh, guess I stayed up a little late.”

Mother emerged from the fridge holding a plastic bag filled with dark red fluid.

“Mom,” said Nick, “What’s that?”

“AB positive,” said Mother, “My favorite.”

“Mom,” said Nick, “You can’t keep human blood in my fridge. It’s not sanitary.”

Mother shrugged a soft, alabaster shoulder.

“I didn’t feel like going out tonight. I thought I might stay in and watch a movie.”


“If you’re staying up tonight, you could watch it with me.”

Mother smiled in just such a way that, for just a moment, the kitchen lights glinted on her fangs and showed her crimson eye-shine. Nick wasn’t sure if this was meant to be charming or threatening.

He decided to assume it was threatening, just to be safe.

“Sure,” he said, “What do you want to watch?”

Nick’s TV was dusty with disuse, so he wiped it down and then plopped down on the couch and watched Thelma and Louise while Mother curled up against him and slurped AB positive blood from a fang-hole in her blood bag. Mother’s skin, far from being icy cold, was unbearably hot. Nick wasn’t sure if he was more surprised by that or by the fact that he hadn’t touched his own mother in so long that he hadn’t known that.

That night, Nick dreamed that the next morning’s trash was his own body.


After the divorce, Barb moved in with family in Yorktown, tearing Nick away from the life he’d had in Virginia Beach. In the presence of her old friends and family, Barb rapidly became an entirely different woman. She was sociable and pleasant now, where before Nick had only known her to be furious and withdrawn. She went through new boyfriends about once a month, but she treated all of them nicely, and Nick was often kept up at night by a different sort of screaming.

Still, Nick couldn’t forget the way he remembered his mother while growing up. He never forgot the way that she used to go weeks without speaking to him, only acknowledging his existence to tell him to go away. Sometimes, when Barbara treated her son with too much kindness, the contrast was too much for him, and he’d snap and snarl and yell at her, much to the disapproval of Barbara’s family. They all whispered that he was too much like his no-good father.

Nick joined the military immediately after high school.

“Why would you want to do that?”

“I just don’t want to be one of those losers who live with their moms.”

“I don’t think you’d be a loser if you stayed with me for a few years.”

“I don’t know. I just don’t want to be a burden.”

“Sweetie, you’re never a burden.”


For all installments of “Black Stains,” click here.