© Ilkin Guliyev | ID 91026947
By Christopher Opyr
Sitting around pondering her next step wouldn’t do her any good. Maybe that thing had broken into her room, maybe it was still right outside that door. Either way, Lori had to be quick.
She chewed at her lip, drumming up her courage and listening for any sound of that abomination. The room had fallen silent.
Beverly? The thought struck Lori with a sudden wave of panic. Her eyes darted to the dark beneath the bed.
Her fear slammed to a halt, her emotions shifting from one extreme to the next almost instantly. Lori could almost taste the adrenaline pulsing through her system, colliding with that heart-stopping relief as she saw Beverly staring up at her.
Then Beverly began to bark once more.
That man-thing thrust itself back through the rupture in the door. It must have eased itself out when she was in the closet, but much of the splintered wood had also given away with its retreat. Now it managed to fit both arms and its head through. It would be able to climb right in.
It gnashed its hideous, blood-stained teeth at her, the ripped flesh of its lips crusting over in another basaltic cooling, that ooze secreting, dripping, and steaming off of it. A thin stream of blood hung from the torn flesh, a drip of blood-spittle. As it bit the air, thrashing to reach her, that dog-like saliva sprayed across the wood paneling.
Lori dashed for Beverly, thrusting her hand beneath the bed and gripping the Pomeranian by the scruff of her neck. She hauled her out and thrust her into the dog carrier, flung it over her shoulders and bolted for the window.
Time slowed and the soft sounds of the room amplified, while the yowling of that man-thing fell away to a distorted muted scream in the background noise of Lori’s panic. Above all things, loudest of all, she heard a pin drop. No. A screw. As it bounced, another soft echo of metal against wood sounded. The sideplate. It seemed to clang against the floor for minutes that stretched into eons. Then came that final horror. The sound of the wood rending apart as the door collapsed in.
Already swiveling her legs down to the ledge, Lori looked back to find that monstrosity bounding towards her, the door biting into its midsection, transformed from the widening maw to some hideous splintered tutu of jagged wood encircling burnt flesh. The image struck her as both hideous and absurd, and a laugh bubbled up unbidden.
And it stopped.
That man-thing stopped and it tilted its head at Lori as if considering her laughter. The thing’s eyes still hid away beneath the drooping flesh fusion of its forehead and cheeks, but just that askew tilt alone signaled its puzzlement with perfect clarity.
Lori had no clue what to make of it, but she also had no time to stop to consider it. Beverly barked at the thing in the door waking Lori from her reverie. Instantly she flew into action, slipping the rest of the way out onto the ledge, nine stories up. She had planned to sidle over away from the window, but as she slipped into the cold night air outside her bedroom window she heard that thing snap back into action itself. She could feel the breeze on her back as it charged, and praying for luck, she pivoted on her right heel, swinging herself out over the nine-story gap, until she had turned a full 180 degrees, her face now pressed against the rough Art Deco exterior.
Beverly slipped in the carrier, sliding into the side and dragging the bag off Lori’s shoulder with her weight. Quickly, Lori hooked her elbow, catching the bag and her dog before they fell to the pavement below. As she did, a blackened hand pounded into the concrete where her head had been. The exterior pebbled, spider-webbing from the impact.
Her head knotted from the tension, Lori sidled three feet to the left, her arm still hooked around the carrier’s shoulder strap. That thing groped out with its sickening arm, searching for her, but as she lay still it could not find her. Next, it thrust its head through the opening and cast its gaze about in every which direction and still it was unable to spot her.
Lori didn’t even dare sigh her relief. She pressed as tightly as possible to the wall and thanked everything that was holy, whether she believed in it or not, that the near drop of the carrier had startled Beverly into silence.
Then it happened.
That thing reached a hand to its face – a gray hand, so much char having flaked away that the skin had lightened – seized upon the melted flesh before it eyes, and yanked back tearing a bloody hunk away and casting it down towards the street. Blood oozed from the open wound in a heavy stream, but behind that crimson waterfall a cold eye stared out and spotted her.
The thing’s motions slowed, taking on a more considered countenance. It gripped at the casing as if to to ease itself onto the ledge.
Panic surged in a fresh wave through Lori. This had to end. She sidled as far away as she could, never removing her gaze from the intruder at the window, then stopped, unable to continue further with the carrier swinging from its tenuous grip in the crook of her elbow and pulling her off balance.
She tried to right it, lifting her left arm, leveling it out, then raising it, all the while gripping as best she could to the concrete wall. As her arm passed level and the bag began to slide down to her shoulder, she felt her entire sense of balance spiraling.
She lowered her arm, grabbing at a protruding lip of cement before an indented panel, and recovered her balance. She couldn’t shift the bag one-handed, and she couldn’t reach the bag with her right arm without pushing herself back from the wall, risking the nine-story drop.
That blood-curtained eye remained locked on her, and the man-thing began to lift its leg out onto the ledge. This was it. Lori was dead.
Below a siren blared to life, an emergency vehicle racing through the LA streets. Oh the music of Los Angeles. As the sirens wailed the man-thing watching her scrambled back into the apartment, its hands clawing at its ear nubs trying to rip out the loud sounds of the city.
Lori let out a sigh of relief. Now she simply had to traverse an eight inch ledge around the bend and another twenty feet to her balcony. No problem.
She sidled closer to the indented paneling, tightening her grip. Thank goodness for Art Deco. One hand clutching to the paneling, the other holding on precariously close to the window casing, she inched her left arm up, slowly sliding the carrier down towards her shoulder. Her legs quivered and she could feel the tremors rattling her knees as she desperately battled to maintain her footing. Bit by bit, the carrier slid down her arm, constantly shifting Lori’s center of balance. At last she could raise her arm no further without losing her grip. The carrier still had inches to go.
Lori glanced to her right arm, still pressed so close to that open window. How long until that thing returned for her? She eased her hand closer and closer, until it tucked in right by her side. Now she just had to reach between herself and the wall so she could get a grip on the bag and right it. She slid her hand forward squeezing between her and the cement.
As she crept her hand closer and closer to her shoulder, Lori had to press back, making room for her to gain leverage. She could sense the emptiness behind her – the open air and the long fall down. That void called for her, taunting her, and she froze. The tremors tore at her knees once more, her balance shifted, and Lori screamed. Her right foot gave, slipping into nothingness.
She clung to the paneling with her left arm, and hurriedly reached back out with her right, pressing it back towards the casement. Her left leg struggled, the knee buckling as she threatened to fall. And with this sudden shift in weight the carrier strap slipped over her shoulder and slammed against her neck.
Lori lost her balance.
Still gripping the paneling, her right knee came down hard on the ledge, and her right hand slipped from the casing, down beside her knee. Pain burst in another flare clouding her vision. Her other leg shifted to the left, compensating for the quick drop and change in balance. Only her left arm remained in place, still gripping for dear life.
Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit. The words rang out like an internal mantra, repeating on an infinite loop. Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.
Her breath came in panicked gasps, and her lungs hurt. She wasn’t getting enough air; she was hyperventilating.
Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit – calm!
Lori had to calm down. She had to calm down now. That thing was still inside, still waiting for her, but she couldn’t even worry about that now. One death-defying panic at a time. First she had to make sure she didn’t plummet to the street.
Calm, calm, calm. A new mantra. A better mantra, offering sage advice rather than blind panic.
Calm, calm, calm, she repeated, willing herself to regain control. Slowly, her breathing returned to normalcy. Her heart pounded and skipped. Skipped? Did it really skip? Calm, calm, calm.
The racing in her breast eased. It didn’t go away – that wasn’t likely to happen anytime soon – but yes it did ease. Lori let out a long, slow, exhale. She could do this.
“Come on, Lori! You got this!”
She could hear her softball team cheering her on as she stepped to bat. This was the moment of truth for the Badgers. She had to bring Joy home. No outs remained. She looked to Joy, and Joy waved and smiled with that perfect homecoming queen smile.
“Go Lori! You got this!”
But Joy had never cheered her on. None of them had. They had shunned her. They had called her a bitch and a slut and they had swooned after boys that all called her a feminazi, like wanting equality was some fascist, insane desire.
This wasn’t how it had happened. This was how she had wished that it had happened, that they had liked her or more importantly respected and accepted her. That they had rooted for her rather than spat at her. This time she had to hit the ball home.
Lori let out one final deep exhale and pulled herself to her feet. Her left knee strained as it took on her full weight, the veins on her wrist protruding with the effort of gripping the paneling. Her right arm scrambled for purchase, at last finding a slight crack in the cement. Her landlord would need to be notified about that. She chuckled at the thought, letting the tension wash away ever so slightly.
A little higher now, a little more weight in that left foot… she could feel her knee threatening to pop. Just a little further. Sweat greased her palms, threatening her handhold on the indention. Just a little more.
She was up. Her right foot found solid ground and she finally let out a sigh of relief. Beverly was properly shouldered after nearly dragging her down, Lori had her footing, and now she could begin the trek around the corner of the building. Things were looking up already.
One step. Two steps. Three steps. Four steps.
Not so bad. The window to her bedroom receded every so slowly, the distance between her and that thing widening.
Six steps. Seven steps. Eight steps.
The cool concrete felt rough against her cheek and the palms of her hands, but Lori didn’t dare push back. She had reached a relative calm, but that was the calm of someone pressed to a wall nine stories up – not a reassuring or strong calm. Definitely not one that instilled confidence.
Ten steps. Eleven steps.
The sweat poured from her palms. As Lori reached for another indented panel, her lead hand slipped rather than gripped. She could feel it fall into the empty space, and her heart didn’t so much sink as plummet. She slapped it back to the wall, the concrete scraping against her skin and the friction finally outweighing the sweatiness of her palms. Lori regained her handhold.
Sweet Jesus, Lori.
She caught her breath and chanted her internal mantra once more. Calm, calm, calm.
Better. She only had a couple more steps to the corner. She could do this.
She heard it before she saw it. The sound of the window being thrust up above the warp in the stile. It must have fallen when that thing had retreated inside. Suddenly, Beverly began to yap once more.
“Damn it, girl, shut up!” That’d tell her.
Her throat constricted and Lori could feel the imminent paralysis of fear threatening to take over. With deliberate and very careful attention, she turned her head.
That burnt thing had lifted up the window and now sat there, perched just over the opening watching her. The aloe-like coating over its skin seemed to have vanished, and splotches of the dark burnt layer had flaked away revealing more gray skin beneath, this too seeming to crack like parched earth, but smoother than the previous char layer. The only large protrusions of char that remained still bubbling clung to a lump above its eyes, still drooping just down from the forehead, a scabbing around its lips, and a few tumorous protrusions encircling its waist.
Lori made it to the corner, the ledge widening to accommodate a small statuary embellishment – a carving of a gargoyle. It wasn’t a full on landing, but at least here Lori could rest for a moment, resituate Beverly, and ease the tension in her shoulders and knees before traversing another twenty feet or so to her balcony.
Standing there on the relative security of the widened corner ledge, Lori rolled her shoulders relishing with each stretch as her tension eased. All the while she stared at that man-thing. As it stared back, any release Lori had gained from the comfort of her increased footspace vanished. The shift in its appearance alone would have been enough to unnerve her, those bubbling char-scabs crusting over its most recent wounds – healing? – but her anxiety rooted less in the shift in its physical appearance and more in its change of demeanor.
That thing hadn’t crashed through the glass of the window. It hadn’t clawed its way out to the ledge like a beast. It had opened the window. Opened it. More, as it stared at her, it didn’t thrash about hunting her with animalistic abandon. That thing watched. It was studying her, its eyes cold and calculating beneath that scabbed over brow.
It was planning.
Lori grabbed Beverly’s shoulder strap and lifted it from her left shoulder and over her neck to her right. Now she shouldn’t have to worry about her dog falling so easily. She leaned down and whispered to Beverly.
“Shhh, girl. Shhh. It’s going to be okay.”
She didn’t believe the words, but the calming tone was the trick. Beverly yapped a few more times as Lori continued to whisper in a smooth, dulcet tone. At last she cast Lori one confused glance, yapped a final time at the thing terrorizing them, then quieted in her carrier.
Lori stood and readied herself for the final twenty feet. All the while, that thing had watched. As she took the first step around the bend she could see it still watching, its eyes locked on her – unwavering. A cold intelligence simmered in that gaze. As the char chipped away, so too did its animalistic inclinations. The rules of the hunt had changed.