"Nothing I Eat Tastes Right."

(Originally posted on r/nosleep (10/04/2024))

There were three of us living in a house-share situation. It was me and my friend Kieran from college, and Simon, who was slightly older than us. Me and Kieran were FRESH from college, and though we had intended to live by ourselves, we quickly got a big dose of reality and realised it wouldn't be feasible on our salaries. Thankfully, we met Simon through a friend of a friend and the three of us found a pretty cheap place.

I can't say we ever really 'hit it off' with Simon. There was nothing we disliked about the guy, but even after living with him for over a year, we knew next to nothing about him. One thing we did figure out pretty quickly was that Simon rarely left the house. Kieran put a word to that - 'agoraphobic'. Simon would go out maybe once every week, or every two weeks, for groceries, but he would never be gone for more than an hour. People have told me since that this would have been an issue for them, having someone always hovering around and stuff, being in your face 24/7 for as long as you're home, but it wasn't really like that. Simon was pretty courteous about our space, and whatever hang-ups he had, he never made them our problem. Besides, he was paying to live there too, so he had every right to spend as much time indoors as he wanted.

The rent was always on time, and Simon kept a well-stocked pantry, so we assumed he had a job. Something he could do from his desk. Computers, maybe? That was how little we knew about him. We didn't even know what he did for a living.

Simon was kind of a neat freak. Actually, Kieran had a word for this too, but I've forgotten it. Me and Kieran were slobs, so we always felt guilty when we'd come home and the kitchen surfaces scrubbed, or the bathroom spotless and the towels folded. Simon was a good influence on us, because we ended up feeling so bad about it that we forced ourselves to get more on top of our chores. But he always said that he never minded. One of the only times he ever referenced his agoraphobia in conversation was when he told us: "I stay indoors all day, what else am I meant to do? I'll get bored if there's nothing to clean." I think he was only half-joking.

Another thing about his, sort of, neatness, or attention to detail or whatever, was that there was very little deviation in his routine. Whenever you heard him moving about in the house, he was doing things like clockwork. More than a couple of times, I was woken up by the sound of the toilet flushing and realised I was running late for work because Simon always used the bathroom at 8:30 in the morning. Every day. Simon ate pretty much the same things every day, and he had three outfits which he would wear in rotation. We would ask him if it didn't drive him crazy that his life was like 'Groundhog Day' and he would just shrug it off and smile.

He was never overly anal or obsessive toward us. He wasn't sociable, but he could hold a conversation. There were opportunities where he could have, and rightly should have, given us hell, particularly when we had friends over and things got loud late at night, but he never did. Overall, he was a nice roommate.

Two months before his disappearance was when Simon's behaviour really started to take a turn for the worse. He started coming into the communal areas less and less, especially in the evenings when we would normally all be in there together, doing our own separate things. We started to see him cook meals less and less as well, and you could tell just by look at him that something wasn't right. He was getting thinner, almost scarily so, and his skin was starting to deteriorate. I remember he had some really bad zits, which was unusual (for him) because he was normally so well-groomed and had never been prone to acne from what I saw. Still, me and Kieran said nothing. I regret this now, but like I said, we weren't exactly close with Simon, and both of us felt too awkward to ask if anything was wrong. In our minds, we just hoped he had the flu, and that normalcy would soon resume.

I remember seeing him in the kitchen around this time, and the minute he entered, his face completely changed. The muscles in his neck went taut, and he seemed extremely on edge. He was staring at the microwave as if it was about to leap from the counter and bite his head off. I gave him a gentle "you good?" and, as if a switch had flicked, some of the colour returned to his cheeks, and he nodded and gave me a half-hearted grin. This was one of the last times I saw him.

A couple of weeks later, he came home from a trip to the grocery store - trips he had been taking less and less frequently, and always returning with less items - wearing a brand new, bright red woolly hat, pulled all the way down to his eyebrows. This was so unusual for him, and looked so ridiculous paired with the same formal clothes we had seen him wearing for a year, that me and Kieran burst into nervous laughter immediately at the sight of him. He was obviously so uncomfortable, ashamed even, but didn't take it off, and me and Kieran stopped laughing and gave him a few lame compliments. I only saw him twice more after this, and, both times, he was wearing the hat, dirty as if he hadn't taken it off. Kieran too claims that Simon wore this around the house, at all times.

The last time I saw Simon, it was late at night, and I could hear him crying in the bathroom. I lingered outside the door, shifting my weight from foot to foot, unsure of whether to knock. I'd never heard him cry, and I'd never heard anyone cry like that. Before I could make up my mind, Simon came out wearing his red hat. He had a black eye, and there were still tears on his face. I opened my mouth to say something, but he had already crossed the hallway and locked himself in his room.

Seriously concerned, and kicking myself that I hadn't taken the opportunity to find out what was wrong when I still had the chance, we began sending Simon frequent text messages, now the only way we were able to communicate with him. None of these would get any reply. We could only assume he was still in his room. Often, we would hear him shifting around in there, but his routine seemed to have flown completely out of the window. To my knowledge, he never came out to use the kitchen or bathroom.

One night, Kieran woke me up. He had the smell of booze on his breath. I think it had been his sister's birthday or something, so he had been out drinking. Kieran told me that he had been sitting on the couch, having just fixed himself a snack, when a man came down the stairs, glanced at him once, grinned, then opened the door and vanished into the night. Kieran said that, at first, he thought the man was Simon, since they had the same hair colour and the man was wearing Simon's clothes. In the few split seconds that they had been in the room together before the man had left the house, Kieran had done a double take before realising that the man had a completely different face, and was not Simon.

Kieran prefaced all this by asking me if I had friends over. When I said I didn't, he asked if SIMON had any friends over. I didn't know for sure, but I shook my head no, and Kieran accepted this automatically. Simon had never had any guests round in the full time we lived together. He also never spoke about any friends. When I thought of that, a pang of guilt hit me as I again pictured Simon emerging from the bathroom crying, with his eye all swollen and bruised. This was quickly erased from my mind though as Kieran told me what he saw.

We wondered if we had been robbed, so we got up and checked everything, but no valuables were missing. We texted Simon a couple of times, but there was no reply once again, and his bedroom door remained closed and locked. I weakly tried to pull Kieran round to the conclusion that the man he had seen had in fact been Simon, and he was just so wasted that he hadn't seen Simon's face properly. Even as I said it, it didn't sound right - Simon never left the house at night. Kieran was also adamant, between burps and swaying on his feet unsteadily, that the man he had seen was NOT Simon. We eventually knocked on Simon's door loud enough to wake him up if he had been sleeping in there, and when there was still no answer, we had to assume, however improbable, that Simon had went off somewhere and was not home. We were both pretty uneasy, and though Kieran slumped right off to bed, I stayed awake all night, listening for the key in the lock and for Simon's return.

Two days later, with still no return and no text messages, we decided to pick the lock to Simon's room, now worried that there really HAD been a burglar and that Simon might have been incapacitated or murdered. Neither I nor Kieran had ever been inside of Simon's room, and when we entered, my heart kind of broke for him. Simon had next to nothing in there. There was a single lamp and a polaroid camera on the bedside table, and nothing more. His computer sat at his desk with nothing around it. There were two tatty old paperbacks on a shelf above the desk, as well as the leather journal that we had seen him make to-do lists in. There was nothing else in the room. No posters on the wall, no trinkets, no mess. The bedsheets were crisp, the bed had been neatly made up, and lying on one of the pillows was the red hat. Simon was not in there.

We debated what to do for a while, and I took down Simon's notebook. He was meticulous in his record-keeping and we flipped through what must have been around fifty pages with things written on them like "Change bedsheets today", "Bleach shower", or "Vacuum hallway". He also noted his shopping lists, and how much he spent on groceries. There was always a date in the margin next to his notes. We flipped through until we came to the last few pages that were filled. The first thing out of the ordinary was a line of text by itself with no date, scrawled rapidly and then quickly scratched out, so that the writing was barely visible. It read "Nothing I eat tastes right".

The next page was much more composed, and began again with a date in the margin. "Bread- slightly off. Tap water- slightly off. Meat (chicken)- fine. Cereal bar- fine. Tomato- way off. Lettuce- slightly off."

There was then his to-do list.

The next instance of this: "Milk- way off. Eggs- fine. Pasta (plain)- fine. Bolognese sauce- slightly off. Meat (mince)- slightly off. Banana- slightly off."

His to-do list. His to-do list. His grocery expenses. "Meat (chicken)- way off. Tap water- way off. Banana- fine. Ham slices- way off. Frozen pizza- slightly off." It went on like this.

With a date attached. "My computer screen is too dark".

"Bread (toasted)- way off. Butter- way off. Eggs- slightly off. Cheese- fine. Banana- way off."

For pages and pages, until all the foods he was mentioning were listed as 'way off'. "The bathroom is bigger" he wrote. "The ceiling in the kitchen has changed colour. Now off-white". Simon's whole world had been this house, the route he took to the grocery store, the same several foods he ate. The same things on repeat. I would trust him to know if something was even slightly off, if there was even an imperceptible change.

"The hallway is wider" (Cereal bar- way off).

"The microwave in the kitchen has moved a few centimetres to the right".

"The carpet doesn't feel the same".

"Something smells terrible and I can't figure out what it is (shower x2 today)" (Eggs- way off).

"Curtains took longer to close than usual".

"Not my thought".

"The inside of the fridge smells strange".

"Missed a step climbing the stairs".

"Couch is uncomfortable".

"Uncomfortable to write with left hand".

"Bathroom has grown bigger by a few centimetres. Ceiling is higher".

"Not my thought". (Cheese- way off)

"Took the wrong left turn on the way to the grocery store".

"Couldn't remember the word for 'aggrieved'".

"Not mine".

"Put kitchen utensils back in the wrong place".

"Got lost on the way home".

"Not my thought".

"Bathroom has grown bigger again".

"Didn't recognise room when I woke up".

"Forgot password to computer". (way off, way off, way off).

And "not my thought".

The final thing Simon had written, with no date, and in handwriting so shaky that it was almost illegible (though it had been deteriorating for the last few pages) was: "I have nothing. I don't understand why it wants to be me. Should I be happy that something is jealous enough of even my small life that it wants to push me out?"

Me and Kieran silently freaked. I hefted the notebook and flipped through the last few pages to see if anything else was written, but every page that followed was blank. When it came to the final page, five polaroids slid out and fell to the floor. Kieran scooped them up and we examined them. Each was a portrait of Simon, presumably taken by himself, in front of a plain white wall (probably one of the walls in his bedroom). The photos were all dated, having been taken a little over a week apart from each other. The first photo was how I now remember him - sallow-faced, with sunken eyes, and a few angry red zits on his face.

The second photo showed Simon with very little change, apart from that the zit near his hairline, just shy of his right temple, had grown bigger and almost looked like a boil.

In the third photo, the zit had swelled threefold and now resembled a lump or a tumour or something. It covered half of his forehead. Simon's skin was pale. His eyes were dark.

In the fourth photo, the lump had swelled to the size of a saucer. It had a few hairs growing from it and its surface was uneven. It had a sizeable dimple in its centre. The pressure of this mass had caused Simon's right eye to bruise. His eyelid was purple and swollen.

In the fifth and final photo, Simon's right eye had completely swelled shut. It looked as if it had been uncomfortably squashed into the crook of his nose, which also appeared broken, and pointed to the left. His mouth was contorted into a painful grimace. The lump had a new shape to it. The bump of something that looked like a nose, complete with a nostril. The curve of what could be described as a lip, with a slight pink colour. Unmistakeably, a circular swell with wrinkles and creases, and eyelashes growing from the centre of it.

We called the police. We showed them the photos. We described what we'd seen - the man who left the house in Simon's place. We told them how Simon had acted the past few months, compared to his rigid routine that we had grown accustomed to. They read from his journal. Nothing came of it, of course. Simon was never found. They came to the consensus that, with his history of disordered behaviour, it was likely that he'd had a breakdown of some description, and that we should assume the worst. We found out in the coming weeks that Simon had no family, and few contacts from the outside world.

Me and Kieran live with his sister and her girlfriend now. Sometimes I ask him, not for the first time, to describe the man who left the house that night, but Kieran's always hazy on the details. I'm at the point now where I'm almost sure we'll never see Simon again, but this other man, or this thing - if I pass him on the street, or see him in line at the movies. If he has friends. If it keeps a diary or a routine. I want to think that some part of me will know that it's him. I don't know what I'll do, but part of me thinks that I'll know him, leading the life that should have been Simon's. He will be familiar, but slightly off. I will look at it and get a sense that I've seen him before, even if he has become completely unrecognisable.