© Ilkin Guliyev | ID 91026947
By Christopher Opyr
And she waited. The minutes passed, the hour changed, and no one came. No sirens approached, no knock at the door sounded, and no key turned the locks. No rescue arrived and neither did Dean.
Lori glanced to the door. Was that thing still there? Had it left? She doubted she’d be that lucky, but she needed to know for sure. Waiting for help that might not come seemed just as likely to end horribly as any other option, and Lori would rather face whatever was coming with action than inaction. She would not die waiting for a white knight.
Once more she tiptoed across the room, her slippers struggling for traction against the slick wood paneling. She tottered her arms out from her sides for balance, and assured of her footing continued towards the door.
Wooden splinters pierced out from a crack down the center of the bottom panel, jutting out as if a grotesque underbite of some monstrous maw of needled teeth. Yet, fractured as it was that splintered door provided no glimpse into the hall beyond.
Lori noted the bent sideplate at the top of the door with great trepidation. Her eyes flitting between that sideplate and the cracked maw of the wood, she lowered herself to the floor. Averting her gaze for as long as she dared, she stole a glance through the gap beneath the door.
She made out no more than a dense patch within the darkness. If it was again that thing shadowed within the dark of the hall, or if it was nothing more than the normal black pitch of night, Lori could not say.
She lay still and listened. The gentle whir of her central air buffeted her and she found a moment of comfort in the cool current raining down from the ceiling vent. Then the air abated and she heard it: a low rumbling, almost as if a deep and guttural snore. Was it sleeping out there, or was that merely the tembor of its breath?
It didn’t matter. Her exit remained blocked.
Or did it?
She peered back over her shoulder to the window on which she had scrawled her message for help. Below that window ran a small ledge, no more than eight inches or so wide but running the length of the building. If she were careful, she should be able to make her way to her balcony, then into the living room and a straight shot to the front door. Or perhaps even all the way to the next apartment over, if the first option proved too risky.
Dean was late, but he could arrive at any minute. Lori had to act quickly. Sure, if Dean stumbled in and that thing killed him, his death would not be her weight to bear, but her inaction would be. Would she be able to live with herself if she did not even try to do something?
She really didn’t need to ask that question.
Lori eased away from the door. Step after cautious step, she inched towards the window. The backwards muted rose letters confronted her, her haggard reflection mingling with the scrawled message. She stopped short upon seeing herself there, reflected against the cityscape. The knot on her head had grown, but it was the strain and the fear etched beneath her eyes that halted her. That thing out there had done this to her. It had changed her. It was trying trying to break her.
It would fail.
Carefully she closed the distance to the window and grasped the rail below the catch. It had been a long time since she opened her bedroom window, and it had never opened easily. The effort would likely be a loud one.
Lori steeled herself, one solid breath in through the nose, gripped tight, then heaved. The window raised an inch, and with a great clamor as the warped stile caught against the casing.
Immediately the thing behind her sounded. A loud din rose up and she could hear it frantically thrashing against the battered door. She spared a momentary glance over her shoulder.
The door rattled in its frame, the upper sideplate bending and another screw working its way out. The hinge joint would not last. The splintered maw shook and stretched jutting further out into the room, now revealing a small gap through to the hall beyond. Flurried shadows danced as that thing flailed, its breathing now ragged and turbulent, the same guttural growl quaking beneath each roaring breath.
Lori averted her gaze. She did not have time to watch fate approach; she needed to focus on making her own. She heaved once more upon the rail. The window stuck in the frame, resisting her. She strained, never slacking. Behind her the door cracked and she heard the soft clatter of metal tinging off the wood paneling. The damn sideplate. That would be the loosened crew, she supposed, but didn’t dare look to verify.
She stopped, catching her breath, then stuck her fingers in the small opening beneath the bottom rail. A morbid thought struck unbidden and she envisioned the window snapping down crushing her fingers against the sill. Instinctually she wanted to withdraw her fingers from that gap, but she held back against the urge. The door would be coming down. She had to open that window.
She bent her knees, locked her elbows at her side, and hauled up. Again the resistance of the warped stile mocked her, and she scrambled to come up with a new plan; then it gave. The window slammed up past the warp in the wood.
Relief momentarily flooding in, she took a hurried look back to the door. The top sideplate held now by only one screw and the bottom plate had begun to give as well. A fresh pounding sounded as that thing struck against the wood, and the maw yawned open.
A charred arm struck through, a blackened tongue scraping over the splinter-fangs. That aloe layer still clung to the cracked and blackened skin, but in places that basaltic black flaked away, like healed scabs ripping from raw skin.
Lori pounded out the screen of the window, sending it falling. She hoped someone would notice, but as she heard it hit she heard no accompanied exclamations. The street below was empty. She swung one leg over scrambling for footing on the narrow ledge. It felt so soft and for a moment she blanked, puzzled by the unexpected sensation. Then she winced, furious with herself, but with no time to dwell on it. She kicked off her slippers and tried again.
Eight inches wasn’t a lot of space, but her footing felt firm. She swung her second leg over and prepared for the ledge walk, her heart racing, and her her stomach lurching. Just as she gripped the bottom rail and prepared to duck all the way out, she heard it. Or her.
Beverly began to bark.
Lori cut her eyes to a bouncing Beverly yapping from beneath the bed. Why couldn’t she have just stayed asleep?
At the door that thing had managed to squeeze a full arm and most of its head through the maw in the shattered wood, the door teetering as it pushed through the widening rupture. Lori could see that the thing appeared very much human, though so much stronger. Yet, there was no way it could actually be human. If so it would have to be dead.
It’s skin, under all that pulsing aloe-like layer, flaked and peeled, crisp and burnt and raw. The thing’s lips seemed fused together, only parting slightly and just off center. And yet it snapped at her, showing glistening yellowed teeth hidden within that burnt carcass of its mouth. It’s breath whined through narrow slits in the equally fused nostrils of its nose, and its eyes…
It looked for her, though a melted mass of charred flesh drooping down from its forehead and melding with its cheeks. Only its ears seemed unblocked, though it had only nubs rather than a full pair of ears, as if the rest had sloughed away.
As it strained to force its way in, the wooden shards of the door raked into the burnt flesh, more ashen char flaking away, and tiny trails gouging through the raw skin beneath, leaving thin streams of blood. The thing paid the pain no mind. The trails bubbled, and darkened, more of that aloe coating seeping out from the thing’s pores and the wounds knitted together, solidifying into that burnt flesh layer, as if lava cooling upon colliding with the sea.
Lori clenched her jaw and swallowed back a lump of bile. She felt certain she was going to retch, and not so much because of the grotesque nightmare playing out before her, but more from the putrid rot that clung to it. The smell choked her, a tangible filth, almost like a thin layer of soot that stubbornly blanketed the room. Her eyes watered from the smell.
All the while, Beverly jumped and barked from beneath the bed, and that thing, that burnt man continued to strain, squeezing through the broken door. It seemed a man, too, didn’t it? If it bore some kin to humanity, Lori had no doubt it was male.
She knew she needed to go before it forced its way in or broke down the door completely, yet, Beverly would not quiet. Lori glared at her, and motioned for her to sit and shush, but the dog was in no mood for tricks. If that thing made it in, would it kill her?
Lori cursed herself then hauled her legs back from the ledge and into her bedroom. She had to move fast. As she landed, the burnt thing, the man at the door, snarled and stretched open its mouth, the tiny split widening and ripping, as the fused flesh parted in a spray of spittle and blood. The crimson stained its yellowed teeth, a blood wash that clung to the gums, as if some hideous image of decay you might see tacked up in a sadistic dentist’s office.
Lori darted for her closet, sliding across the wood floor, and crashing into the hanging clothes. She brushed them aside, rummaging through the junk cluttering the back of the closet, and yanked out a small tote dog carrier. As she turned back, heart pounding, she heard a rending noise, then a clatter from her bedroom. She sped to shut the door, only as she slid out reaching out for the handle she found a puzzling scene.
Broken wooden shards lay strewn about the entryway to her room, but the torn maw lay open and shattered, and the door held. The thing, the burnt man, was gone.
Where the fuck is he?
In a frenzied hurry she scanned the room, but she did not see him. Shit, shit, shit.
Don’t panic, she thought, only it was the perfect time to panic. In the history of the whole damn universe, this was the time to panic. Henceforth, if one were to look up panic, this would be listed as the epitome of the appropriate moment to go bat shit crazy with it. There was no doubt in Lori’s mind.
Only if she panicked, she died.
She threw back her head, in a silent, frustrated laugh. She couldn’t see that thing, and that was so much worse than seeing it. Especially, as she could still smell it. Its rot still hung over the room. It hadn’t left.