Tiny vampires, and that’s not even the scariest thing about this story, originally published in SLAY: Stories of the Vampire Noire.
Narration by Cherrae Stuart.
Audio production by Davis Walden.
Hi. I’m Tonia Ransom, creator and executive producer of NIGHTLIGHT, a horror podcast featuring creepy tales written and performed by Black creatives from all over the world.
This week we have a story originally published in SLAY, which we gave away a copy of last week. Desiccant was my favorite story in the anthology, so I’m thrilled to have it for the podcast. It’s a wonderful twist on vampires, but the vampires aren’t even the most horrific part of this tale.
But before we get to tiny vampires, just a reminder that all episodes are brought to you by the NIGHTLIGHT Legion. Thanks also to Gowri who supported us with a one-time donation. You have my eternal gratitude. Unfortunately, we don’t have any new members of the NIGHTLIGHT Legion this week, so remember, we need your help to reach our goal of publishing weekly episodes for you to enjoy. Just go to patreon.com/nightlightpod to join the NIGHTLIGHT Legion and get a shoutout on the podcast.
Now sit back, turn out the lights, and enjoy Desiccant by Craig Laurance Gidney, narrated by Cherrae Stuart.
The Bellona Heights Apartments were rundown. The pavement of the open semi-courtyard had cracks, concrete wounds that oozed out moss and straggling weeds. An old fountain, spattered with bird droppings, was filled with stagnant rainwater and trash. The first level beige brick had graffiti, scrawls of obscene words and nonsense shapes scrawled across it. The balconies that faced the courtyard were over-stuffed with plants, bicycles and rusting lawn furniture. The cornices were crumbling. Hiphop and Reggaeton blasted from open windows.
Tituba shuddered in revulsion. But she had no choice, did she?
You get what you pay for, she thought, and a one bedroom in Bellona Heights was what she could afford. At least she’d found a place to live on such short notice. Her sister’s new boyfriend Vaughn had threatened to change the locks one too many times. Tituba loved her sister Leah, but her choice in men was terrible. At least Juan, the last one, didn’t misgender her. Yes, this place was below her standards, but, she reasoned, the lease was only for one year. And surely, she could find a more suitable place by then?
Inside the building, Tituba saw worn linoleum and the chipped paint on the walls. She picked up her keys at the office from a sullen clerk who couldn’t pull her eyes away from a game on her phone, and rode the old gear-winding elevator up to the fourteenth floor. Phantom odors drifted down the hallway, weed, old fried fish and of course, boiled cabbage. Boiled cabbage was the smell of despair and deferred dreams.
1412 was semi-furnished, with a futon/couch frame and dresser-drawers. It was on the other side of the building, so there was no balcony. The window faced the alley, which was full of dumpsters.
At least it was clean, for the most part. The only visible flaw was the discoloration right outside the air-conditioning vent. Carmine smears dribbled from the grate. Tituba touched it before she thought better of it. She felt a powdery dust on her fingertips, surprised to find that it was not dried paint or even worse, blood.
Fabiana was late, as she always was. Tituba had been sitting at the cafe for a good fifteen minutes. She entered the space with a dramatic flair, her face wrapped in a bright orange scarf, and wearing bejeweled sunglasses. Her hands were encased in some silvery gloves. Heads turned, whispers came up from the other tables. She always wanted to be noticed. While Tituba had her moments, for the most part she wanted to be left alone.
Fabiana air-kissed her and then ordered an Americano and a low-fat blueberry muffin. She ignored both of the items.
“How’s the new place? And when’s the housewarming?” Fabiana asked her as she removed her sunglasses, revealing violet-colored contact lenses.
“The place is ratchet, so there will not be a housewarming party. Leah and that scrub Vaughn practically tossed me out into the street.”
“I thought Leah had your back,” Fabiana said.
“She usually does,” Tituba said, “when she’s not dick-a-matized. Vaughn pitched a fit when one of his boys asked him for my number. He threw around the words, ‘she-male,’ and tranny and accused me of flirting. Leah didn’t stop him. She became a whole other person. Meek and useless.”
“Girl, if he had called me those names, I’d have sliced him up. I still carry my knife, in case anyone is fixing to get smart with me!”
“Trust me, it got ugly. He was all, ‘What type of crazy name is Tituba?’ Frankly, I was angrier at my sister than I was at him. I felt betrayed.”
“I’m so sorry for you,” Fabiana said. “Do you want me to do something to teach this dude a lesson? I know some people.”
“No,” she replied. “I guess this is part of my journey. I thought I’d lucked out and wouldn’t have to go through people around me rejecting who I was.”
“I don’t blame you,” Fabiana replied. She finally ate a bite of her muffin. A tiny bird bite. “You sleeping alright?” she asked.
“No… Why do you ask?”
“Them bags under your eyes, child. You know what will fix them? Hemorrhoid cream. It tightens the skin.”
“I am not about to put ass cream under my eyes!” Tituba said. Both of them laughed loudly, causing the other café patrons to glance in their direction.
Fabiana said playfully, “Keep it classy, bitch!”
Tituba swatted at her hand. “Oh, hush. Seriously, though. Falling asleep isn’t the problem. Hell, staying asleep isn’t, either. I sleep, but I wake up tired, as if I had a tough work out at the gym, or gone a few rounds with a boxer. And when I wake up, there’s always some weird reddish dust on me. And it’s not just me. My neighbors all look—drained. One day, I saw a kid at the bus stop and his collar had stains of that red dust.”
“Huh,” said Fabiana. “Have you heard about Sick Building Syndrome? It’s a place where all of the occupants get headaches and permanent sniffles. And fatigue. I think the Post did a series about it — one of the buildings owned by the EPA had it, and they had to close it.”
“The effing Environmental Protection Agency had a ‘sick building?'”
“You have to get out of there,” Fabiana said, “Or, you need to get all Norma Rae on the building supervisor!”
Dust! Miles and miles, dune after dune of rust-red, as far as her eye could see. A red that was the color of old blood, slowly changing from crimson to brown.
She stood knee-deep in the middle of a valley, surrounded by mounds of the stuff. The sky above was hidden, obscured by a veil of red powder. She was sinking under, unable to get purchase on the feathery ground. The clothes she wore were reduced to blood-stained rags. It looked like she was shedding a membranous skin, like a snake. Her skin had abrasions, a network of thin cuts that were crusted over and flaking.
She must move on, before being swallowed whole by the wavering ground. If she didn’t move, she would drown and die, forever preserved beneath, a beautiful mummy no-one would ever see. She must move, or else she would die.
She lifted one foot clear of the squelching redness. And the wind began to blow. Dust rose up into the air, into a corrosive mist that erased her body. Soon, she could not see anything. All was lost in the simoom.
Tituba woke up coughing. Her body shuddered with the fit. She could feel something rattling in her chest, as if her body were a percussion instrument filled with dry rice or sand. After the fit was over, she got up and switched the light on. Her tongue was heavy in her mouth, so she stumbled to the sink and drank two full glasses of water before she felt relatively normal.
She put the glass in the sink, checked the time. It was three-thirty AM, early enough for a second shift of sleep. But she was too wired to get back into her bed. And, it seemed that she wasn’t the only person up at this hour. The floor above her creaked with footsteps. Bellona’s paper-thin walls revealed activity on either side of her apartment, coughing on the left, the plaintive voice of a distressed child on the right.
Tituba knew that falling back to sleep would be difficult, so she pulled her phone from her charging port. Her headphones were on the ottoman next to her futon. That’s when she first noticed the red dust. It was all over her mattress and futon, a fine sifting of rust-colored powder. She touched it. It didn’t feel of anything. It was not coarse or smooth. It was feathery and insubstantial, even though she expected it to have a gritty feel like sand or salt. Then, it moved. An infinitesimal slither through her fingers, a blur of micro-movement. Reflexively, Tituba shook the stuff off her fingers and headphones.
It wouldn’t come off. There was a slight disturbance, but then the powder-dust settled back. It clung to the curve of the headphones, the whorl of her fingertips. Tituba rubbed at the dust, hoping to dislodge it with friction. That did not work. Her fingertips were stained.
She muttered a curse word or two under her breath. She ran water over the stubborn stain at the kitchen sink.
A piece of dried skin, embossed with a fingerprint, fell off her hand, leaving behind tender new skin. She watched as the opaque red crinkled skin settled in the sink.
The powder-dust plumped up with the water. Fat with sudden moisture, the flakes began to rise upward, as if buoyed by an unfelt breeze. Red drops of old blood hung in the air, hovered. Then, they burst open.
The office door was locked, as it had been for the past two weeks. Tituba had stopped by the superintendent’s office before and after work, on the weekend, but the door had always been locked. The emails she sent were unanswered, and the phone calls went straight to voice mail.
She didn’t know if she’d even seen him during the time she’d been in Bellona Heights. Her neighbors confirmed that he was elusive and unreachable at the best of times. Everyone she’d spoken to had given her a ‘why bother’ attitude. When she told the residents in the mailroom or lobby about the mysterious, weird dust she’d seen, they just shrugged, as if defeated.
One time in the laundry room, she asked Phylis, an older woman who lived on the same floor, if she knew anything..
Phylis had been folding a child’s clothes when Tituba had entered the shabby basement with a week’s worth of dirty clothing. Phylis had grudgingly given her a greeting when Tituba broached the subject.
“Yeah, I’ve seen it,” Phylis had said, dripping with attitude. “Folks made a stink about it, back in the day. Nothing happened.”
“But it must be unhealthy. So many people here have respiratory problems.”
“And?” Phylis said, as she went to unload a dryer that had just buzzed. “Ain’t nobody who owns this glorified flophouse care about our health. This ain’t Northwest.”
Tituba purposefully ignored the bitterness dripping from Phylis’s voice. “Maybe not. But the dust isn’t natural. I hear it rattling in the vent, like tiny ants. Like it’s alive….”
Phylis stopped folding the laundry and threw it into the basket. “You’re a fine one to talk about ‘unnatural’ things,” she announced as she headed to the door.
Tituba said, “Excuse me?”
But Phylis was already out of the room.
Now, she stood in front of the office door for the umpteenth time. She jiggled the lock, even though she knew there was no point. Maybe Phylis was right, and she should leave well enough alone. But she couldn’t. Tituba’s entire existence had been full of struggle, starting from birth, and it didn’t look like it was going to get easy any time soon. The dancing dust was just one more obstacle to overcome.
Tituba went to the mailroom instead. She found the tiny room was full of packages and guessed that some of them were nebulizers and humidifiers. All week long, residents had unboxed the machines in the room, leaving a pile of broken down cardboard boxes. She had toyed with getting one herself, to combat the dryness in the building.
Fabiana was right. Bellona Heights was a sick building. Ever since she’d moved in, she had been plagued with low-key headaches that threatened to grow in to full-on migraines. Her stomach was unsettled and food tasted weird. Walking down a city block easily winded her. And she began to notice discolorations on her skin: darkness beneath her eyes, and white spots on her arms. Most of all, she was always thirsty. She would drink bottle after glass of water or juice but she could never be satisfied. She didn’t pee often, for the amount she drank. Where did it all go?
She passed by the superintendent’s door, in futile hope.
“Warren not in again?” said someone behind her. It was Ty, who also lived on her floor. He was around her age and height, with a muscular lithe physique. His skin was dark and velvet-smooth, his bald head glowing with head wax. At least, that had been his appearance. Now, crows feet and forehead wrinkles marred the smooth expanse, and the lustrous blue-blackness of his skin was dried out to a leathery brown.
“Apparently not.” Tituba looked away from Ty, hoping that he didn’t notice her shocked reaction.
He jiggled the doorknob, as if to verify. Then, he glanced at Tituba, and gave her a conspiratorial wink.
“Desperate times,” he said, and he pushed against the door with his shoulder. The door quivered with the pressure and after a few more aggressive pushes, it popped open.
Ty and Tituba were immediately hit with a wave of stale air that had a slight cindery taste. They simultaneously began coughing in response. There was also another smell beneath that one — a smell of turned meat and the coppery tang of old blood. A haze of carmine simmered in the room, thick enough that they both had to wave it away. The shades were drawn, so it was dim in the room.
“Oh, my god,” Tituba said, after her eyes adjusted to the gloom.
There was a body slumped over a desk. She knew that it was a corpse. The angle of the head looked too uncomfortable to maintain, and the visible eye was open. She switched on the overhead light and immediately wished that she hadn’t. The older gentleman was in a grey mechanic’s suit, and his mouth was opened in a grimace. Dust pooled around the open mouth, on to the desk. It was embedded on his skin, in his hair, and she could see flecks of it in the whites of his eye.
Ty walked around the desk, reached out to touch the body.
“Leave it alone,” Tituba said.
Ty lowered his hands, and reached for his cellphone instead, presumably to call for an ambulance.
Tituba saw the wrinkled flesh, fold upon fold of thin skin, some of it so dry that the pigment had leeched out. It didn’t look like skin. It was papery, cracked like old parchment. And in the folds of skin, remnants of the red dust gathered. His mouth was open and a crumbled pink tongue lolled out past black and cracked lips.
“He looks like a mummy,” Ty said after he finished speaking to the emergency operator. “I wonder how long he’s been here.”
Tituba heard him, but she was distracted by the thin trail of red dripping down from the HVAC vent.
Whatever lived there had drained the superintendent, had turned him into a husk. His skin had the same color and texture as a tamarind. She could only imagine the poor man’s innards, the pulp toughened into sponge and coral.
“He’s been sucked dry,” Tituba said. “We’re gonna end up like him.”
With tweezers, Tituba scraped the red residue into an old nail polish bottle she had cleaned out. Something was in the vents, something that left behind this weird substance.
She brought the bottle with her to dinner at a restaurant.
The first thing Fabiana said when she saw Tituba was, “Girl, you look ashy and worn out!”
“I know,” she replied, waving the comment away. “Listen to me. You were right. Bellona Heights is a sick building. Some kind of virus or something lives in the vents and gives everyone who lives there breathing problems!
“Last week, one of the other residents and I found the superintendent dead in his office. His body was dry. Bone dry. Desert dry. All of the moisture had been sucked right out of him.”
Tituba pulled up a picture on her phone, and handed it to Fabiana.
Fabiana shrieked. “Put that thing away!”
Fabiana said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so terrible. Poor dude. He looks like one of those apple head dolls.”
“I asked the EMTs if they were gonna do an autopsy to determine the cause of death. They ignored me.”
Fabiana sucked her teeth in sympathetic dismay. “They always do. And we end up dead because they won’t listen!”
Tituba dug around in her handbag until she found and pulled out the nail polish bottle.
“Look at it, Fab. Look closely.”
“Look at an empty bottle of Carolina Beet lacquer?” Fabiana cautiously picked the bottle up, and peered into it.
“Stop kidding around, girl. Tell me what you see.”
Fabiana stared at it for a long moment, still looked as the server refilled their wine glasses with Rosé.
Finally, she said, “That dust moves.”
“I’m glad you saw that too! I thought I was going crazy!”
Fabiana still held the bottle close to her eye. “I don’t think it’s dust, Tituba. I saw one fragment of whatever-it-is, apart from the others, move on it’s own. I see wings. Tiny, infinitesimal scarlet wings. The wings of a moth, not a butterfly. The straggler eventually joined the rest of the swarm, I suppose. And it looked like a swirling dust.”
“You think it’s insects?”
Fabiana shrugged in response. “I don’t know. All I do know is, you have to get the hell out of there!”
Tituba was unlocking the door to her apartment when she heard the scream. It came from down the hall. She found herself running there and knocking on the door until Phylis, the grandmother who lived there with her daughter Krystle and grandson Kendrick, opened it.
“What’s wrong, Miss Phylis?” she asked.
Miss Phylis was wild-eyed and apoplectic, apparently unable to speak. She gestured weakly to an opened doorway off the L-shape of the apartment. More screams came from there, mostly Krystle saying, “Lord, lord, lord!” Tituba left Miss Phylis behind to look in the doorway.
She tried to make sense of the bizarre scene. This was obviously a child’s room, full of Thomas the Tank Engine paraphernalia, the google-eyed train’s face on toys and curtains and posters, with its frozen smile stretched across the face. The walls were splattered with moving constellations that came from a projector lamp. Tituba saw little Kendrick being cradled by his mother, in what looked like a grotesque parody of the Pietá, his limp body draped over her lap. His eyes were closed and fluttering, as if he were fighting to keep them open, some nightmare thing wouldn’t let him wake up. Things moved on his unconscious body. Scarlet specks, a tide of them spilling over his pajamas, arms, and face. The tiny little blister-colored things vibrated as they moved. And they moved with purpose, heading for his nostrils and slightly opened mouth. She imagined the minuscule coating his nasal passages, flurrying in the chambers of his sinuses, ricocheting and embedding themselves in spongy alveoli as they drank up the mists of the boy’s body, drying out mucus membranes, turning plasma into dust. She heard Kendrick begin to wheeze, heard the raspy rattling in his chest.
Those creatures have done the same thing to me, every night, she thought. She recalled her dreams about Martian-red deserts and dust storms.
She switched on the overhead light. The stars became invisible. The moth-things slowed down, and lazily detached themselves from the child’s body. They drifted upward, red motes of dust, heading toward the ceiling, heading toward the grates of the vent. More of them dribbled from Kendrick’s nose and mouth. It looked like a twinkling river of blood. Tituba dug around her purse until she found a bottle of spray lotion. She spritzed the red-speckled air with the thick mist, saturating it. A clump of the things fell from the air, a worm-like wriggling ball of red paste with the consistency of snot. The coagulated mess fell on the floor with a wet splat. Tituba, Krystle and Miss Phylis watched with disgust at the wet wings flexing in globules of oily lotion.
Tituba said, “Quick! We have to get the rest of the stuff out of Kendrick! Wake him up and make him drink water. Maybe that will flush them out.”
Krystle carried Kendrick into the kitchen, where he blinkingly woke up in the harsher light. They got the confused child to slurp down a couple of glasses of water. Then he began coughing, body-wracking spasmodic coughs. His mother patted his back, calling Kendrick her little angel, her sweetheart, her precious boy.
Then, he vomited.
Out of his mouth came a stream of red paste. They saw the fragments of wings and waterlogged pieces of something drip onto the floor. The swarm of dust-insects was decimated. But more lived in this forgotten, neglected building full of brown and black bodies. Were these tiny, moth-like vampires conscious of what they did as they fed upon sleeping bodies, draining the moisture of breath, crawling down throats? Perhaps they weren’t malevolent, these winged specks of decay.
Bellona Heights. More like Hellona Depths.
Back in her apartment, Tituba blocked the vent with a piece of plywood. It was a temporary measure. She thought of black mold, or Legionnaires bacteria brought to life with some dark magic. She thought about contacting the press or an exterminator. But people ignored the superintendent’s death, and the complaints bought by the other residents. It was unlikely that anyone would listen to a black trans woman.
She would have to fix this on her own. Survival was in her DNA. Survival, and its importance, was why she chose her name. Titus, her birth name, had been meek and a victim of the church, his family, and society. Titus would have succumbed to the dust-moths and been one more epidemiological statistic to be ignored.
Tituba, however, would fight. She would survive, like the historical woman she’d named herself after.
As she lay down at 4am, exhausted from saving Kendrick’s life, she heard the scarlet moths skittering around in the blocked vents, banging against the plywood barrier.
“I dare you,” she said.
And she began coughing. Violence was in her lungs, her chest, her throat, her head. She coughed so hard that black spots appeared before her. Some of those things must’ve found their way into me. The malevolent red moths were attacking her, with clear intention. It could not have been a coincidence. They had heard her issued challenge, and now they responded.
If — when — Tituba survived this assault, she would destroy miniature dust-demons. She would kill them tonight.
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Audio production for this week’s episode by Davis Walden.
Don’t forget, it’s October, and that means giveaways! This week, we’re giving away a copy of Richard Thomas’ anthology Tribulations. To win this collection of stories of suffering and sorrow, all you have to do is ask a friend to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Make sure you tag us so we get your entry. Once you and your friend are following us, you’ll be entered!
And to thank you for listening until the very end, we have a creepy fact for you.
Did you know that mosquitoes swarm in a way similar to locusts? In fact, one of the coldest states in the United States has one of the largest mosquito swarms in the world. There are so many of them that the caribou there even alter their migration patterns to avoid them.
We’ll be back next week with a new story, and our full cast audio drama production for Halloween!