© © Ilkin Guliyev | ID 91026947
By Christopher Opyr
Lori huddled, arms clasped around her knees, in the furthest, darkest corner of the closet, her eyes fixated on the open door. A clump of blouses and dresses swayed, rocking back and forth on their hangers like silk pendulums, partially eclipsing her view as they reached the zenith of their movement. Her breath slowed into deep but rhythmic exhalations, even as her grasp on her knees tightened, and the clothes gently eased to rest, the wake of her hurried flight into the closet now little more than a splintered memory.
She closed her eyes and focused on her breathing until it too at last softened, evening out. No longer feeling as though she would hyperventilate at any moment, Lori struggled to envision the thing in her kitchen. She had never caught more than a vague impression of it, each glimpse either a dim, peripheral rorschach or a kaleidoscopic flurry too disjointed to take form.
She had just emptied her pockets into the wall organizer in the foyer, her keys clattering softly against the other discarded keys in the storage cube. She had been making her way around the threshold into the kitchen to grab a snack when she first spotted the flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye.
Lori lived alone, and the only other person with a key was her boyfriend, Dean. They had plans for the evening, but he wasn’t supposed to be off work for another hour yet, and even if he had cut out early, he wouldn’t have sulked around her kitchen in the dark.
Lori knew it wasn’t him in her apartment. She knew it deep down, and yet that nagging doubt, that inescapable voice of reason, assured her it must be him in her home. She couldn’t help herself. Instinctually she called out. Lori spoke her mind. Always had.
“Who’s there? Dean, if that’s you, I’m going to kick your –”
She never finished speaking. She didn’t see it, but she heard the clatter of dishes shattering and silverware falling as that thing leapt to life. What had at first appeared as an amorphous shadow, a darker discoloration within an already darkened room, burst forward with a rapidity that bordered on the absurd. Instantly the thing darted out of the kitchen nook and blasted into the foyer smashing into her. Lori shot back against the door and slumped to the floor, a spasm shooting up her back. She gasped in pain and it was once again upon her. Legs and arms pumping in fevered fragments – broken images piercing the dark but never coalescing. Before she could even focus on it, the thing ripped her from the floor and hurtled her down the hall and deeper into the apartment.
She had landed with a sharp impact against the hall bench, her head drumming from the blow. Her vision swam, bursts of light salting the dark, and she dropped motionless, unable to get her bearings. Before she could even cry out, the world had gone black.
When she came to, silence reigned. Silence and darkness.
That had been the first thing Lori noticed. Then came the pain, her head throbbing. Her teeth clenched, gritting against the pulsing and a sudden wave of nausea. Finally, it clicked.
Nausea and pain. She was still breathing – sore and spinning and struggling with an urge to retch, but breathing. Whatever it was in her apartment, it could have easily ripped her apart while she lay unconscious on the floor. Instead it had left her there.
At that moment she had realized that she was convinced that it was just that: an it. Lori was not a believer in the paranormal; she wasn’t some New Age adherent fond of crystals and the healing power of positivity, nor religious by any means, traditional or otherwise. She believed in science, in hard evidence. Still she knew what she had seen was not definable by pre-existing means. And where did that leave her? Her worldview tilted askew and collapsed. She could almost hear it shatter.
Another breath and the image of that shadow form flooded over her. As she had turned the bend from the foyer asking Dean to reveal himself and just before the flurry of movement, she had seen a tall shadow climbing the wall, cast by the dim twilight easing through the window. The shadow had shifted with her entrance, contorted and reversed, and on its edge, as it twisted back, lept a glimmer of the thing, the substance casting that shadow. It stood tall yet also hunched over and primal, a deep pocket of darker black within black.
Still, she could have believed it no more than a simple intruder (was there such a thing as a simple intruder?) had it not been for its skin. She had caught just a momentary look upon its face as it propelled itself forward and those last words stuck in her throat. It’s skin had rippled and bubbled, almost as if burnt and liquified, melted back to reveal muscle and bone. Yet rather than dripping, the river of skin clung to its shape, shifting and sculpting into a living form.
That’s when she had noticed the smell as well, as if food had been left in the drain to mold and rot. The stench latched on and she found herself once more fighting back a deep urge to vomit.
Even there in the closet Lori could smell it, although not so much it, as the memory of it, as if just thinking about the thing summoned forth that putrid rot. She pulled up her blouse, covering her nose to block out the smell, but it had little impact – the stench called out by memory more than actuality. Yet as she shifted the blouse up, she noticed the gentle spray of blood on her hands.
As she came to, the memory of that thing disrupting the delicate balance of Lori’s perception of the universe, her first instinct had been to dash back the way she had come and out the front door, yelling for help. Instead, she had held back.
It had left her alone. Quiet and still, unconscious on the floor, the thing had lost its interest in her. Lori didn’t know if was the lack of movement or the lack of sound, but she felt confident whatever it was in her apartment, it wasn’t tracking her by simple sight or smell. As best she could tell, it either hunted by movement or noise. Of course that left a dilemma. There was no safe way to determine how it hunted and come up with a plan. She could make a sound and see if it came back, or she could walk quietly and hope it didn’t see movement.
Actually, come to think of it, while she couldn’t test her theory without risk, there was only one good course of action – besides laying still on the floor and hoping help comes. No way Lori was waiting. Lori acted. That’s who she was, and this thing wouldn’t rob that from her. It had already silenced her. That was more than enough.
She’d have to try to slip out silently and hope it tracked by sound, not movement. The only other option was to make a sound and see what happened, which only had one of two endings: one, it didn’t hear her and Lori would continue laying motionless on the floor; or two it did hear her and it came back to finish the job. Not satisfied with either possibility, Lori mentally prepared to make a slow, silent break for the door.
Before she could, however, she heard a quiet whimper from beneath the couch: Beverly, her Pomeranian. Lori had no idea how long Beverly had been hiding there, but she saw her master now, and those eyes looked up at her with a mix of excitement and anxiety, begging for her help.
Lori fought back the protective impulse to charge for her precious dog, to scoop her up and run her to safety. Instead she merely glanced at her to see that she was okay, then glanced away. If she looked at Beverly too much, the dog would bound right over and Lori couldn’t risk that. She lay motionless struggling to form a new plan. Beverly watched from under the couch. The twilight creeping through the window grew dimmer and vanished. Still nothing seized upon Lori. No demon of the dark tore her from her prone position. Lori just lay there, holding her breath, awaiting the inevitable, stuck trying to find any way to reach Beverly and not get killed.
At that moment, a footstep sounded from behind her, sloshing against the wood paneling. Then another, and another. Each footfall came slow and steady, each wet and slick. At last she caught sight of a bare foot halfway between her and the couch or what should have been a foot. Here too the skin pulsed, blackened and veined in red, like cracks in a parched landscape, only a layer of water and puss gelled over the burnt surface of the skin.
Lori didn’t dare move or make a sound. She lay motionless as the thing inched further into the living room. From her position on the floor she could make out no more than its feet in the growing dark, approaching ever closer to Beverly. The Pomeranian had shrunk further back beneath the couch, a trail of urine streaking back towards it. Lori desperately wanted to help her, and in that instant, Beverly locked eyes with her master and yelped.
The thing leapt forth and flung the couch aside as if tossing a ball. The sofa crashed back with brute force cracking open the drywall and smashing to the ground. As it did, Beverly yelped once more and skittered across the wood floor searching for cover. Lori could see those blackened feet dashing after her baby, and without thinking she rose and screamed.
Immediately the thing pivoted, and she felt the impact of its wet fist slamming her across her midsection. She doubled over and shot through the air slamming into a large, potted ficus, and fell to the floor in a tangle of branches, leaves, and potting mix.
Sound. It definitely tracked by sound.
Lori lay still, motionless and more importantly quiet as possible. Her body ached all over, bruises forming over bruises, and with each breath she could feel a stabbing sensation. Lori was not accustomed to injury, but she felt certain she had fractured a rib.
Laying there as motionless as possible she felt that rib, what she assumed was her rib, pressing in, pain rippling up from the break, and from the movement of bone against bone. If she could just shift, maybe the pain would ease.
Then beneath all the pain she felt a broken branch lodged beneath her, the splinters of wood digging into her shirt and scratching at the skin of her back. She tried to focus on anything but the pain, but that left her instead focusing on that deep itch and the increasingly irresistible urge to scratch it. A shift just an inch to the right and maybe, just maybe, she could relieve the pain, but if not, she could at least shift off that damned branch.
She tensed her abs and locked her elbows. Time to move. On three, she thought. One. It would feel so good to just not have that branch under her. Two. Of course, chances were her rib would hurt like hell. Would she scream? Three. She didn’t move. How could she? That thing was still here somewhere.
What a coward. She rolled her eyes at herself. Or rational-thinking adult not interested in being mauled to death. Yeah, that too. Of course, in that moment she was back at square one – prone on the floor waiting without a plan.
In a moment bordering on deja-vu Beverly yapped again, this time from down the hall towards the bedroom. Again Lori heard the rapid charge of It, of the thing in her apartment. Beneath its heavy footfalls she could just make out the scampering pitter-patter of Beverly’s paws on the wood.
Lori braved a look. At the end of the hallway, she saw once again that hunched, primal shadow, that flickering discoloration in the black. She couldn’t see Beverly clearly, but she could sense movement along the floor line, and assumed that was her, cornered and skittering in circles. In the opposite direction, she saw the front door, nothing between her and escape. All she had to do was get on her feet and make a mad dash. Maybe fifteen feet or so, and she could be out of this nightmare.
She looked back to the dark, where Beverly barked at the thing that had invaded her apartment. How did it even get here? What was it? She needed answers, but more than anything she needed to act. Lori acted. That’s what she did. For too long that night she had felt herself benched.
She shifted her hand ever so slightly, tightening it around the broken branch beneath her back. Her fingers traced a slow path along its contours until finding its tip. She felt a needle of pain as she pressed down. The branch was plenty sharp.
Lori stood, careful to make as little noise as possible, and shuffled forward inch by inch. Ten feet between her and Beverly. Nine feet. Eight feet. Seven feet.
The shadow at the end of the hall stopped, and so did she. Lori held her breath, lest the slightest noise tip that thing off. A smaller shadow continued darting across the floor, but before it could escape, the larger hunched back down and swiped at it. Wood paneling cracked and ripped from the floor, but the dog remained unscathed.
Six feet. Five feet.
Spotting Lori, Beverly made a dash for her owner, but the intruder pivoted into the dog’s path. Desperate and cornered, the Pomerania bit into the thing’s ankle. A guttural, gurgling howl broke through the night and that thing reared back. Lori took her moment.
Four feet. Three feet. Two.
She stabbed down with the splintered branch as hard as she could thrusting deep into the base of the creature’s neck. It jerked away, flailing frantically, a thin spray of arterial blood misting out. Instinctually, Lori raised her hands to shield her face.
Lori let out another deep and silent breath, then lowered her hands. As the beast squirmed and pulled at the branch sticking from its neck, Lori had been caught with her retreat blocked. With no choice she had opened the bedroom and fled inside. She shut the door gently, hoping the distracted beast would not notice nor hear, then propped a desk chair beneath the handle. She considered pushing her dresser over and barricading herself in, but was fairly sure the thing would have heard her and rushed in.
Moments later, afraid to test her temporary security, Lori had fled into the closet, while Beverly hid far back under the bed. It was best that way. If her dog could see her, if they were hiding together, Lori doubted she would have stayed silent.
Of course, once more Lori found herself motionless and hiding. Her heart pounded in her chest, sweat drenched her clothes, and her side ached more than ever. Another stabbing pain coursed over her and Lori wondered how long she could go without seeing a doctor. How long could she last without treatment?
She didn’t even notice she had risen to her feet until she came to staring out her window. Her apartment was nine floors up, looking out onto downtown Los Angeles. She didn’t have a balcony off her bedroom but a ledge about six inches wide ran the perimeter of the building, just a foot below the windows. One bend around the building corner, and another ten feet and she’d be at the living room balcony. It would be a short dash from the living room to the front door, but if that thing was still waiting outside her bedroom, then it just might be possible. Fifteen feet total stood between her and escape.
Of course, she had to be certain. She scanned a nearby nightstand, grabbed an empty tic-tac container, and threw it at the door. A great clawing lashed at the door and it shook upon its hinges, but the chair beneath the handle did not budge. Yes, It was still out there.