Gloria sat in her car, frozen, gripping her pistol as it rested on her leg. Death had just recently grazed her, leaving behind its mark. Dumbfounded by the fact that something had suddenly appeared in front of her eyes, underneath the ladder, it was as if time had experienced a lapse in judgment and had callously skipped ahead, leaving it to her to fill in its gaps. How could that be? Wasn’t I just looking into that alley, sure that nothing was there? Somehow, she felt as if the creature had left satisfied, unable to quite say why. All she knew was that it must have been around her for some time if she had not of noticed it before. She waited to see if it might reveal itself a second time. It did not. As the stiffness in her body left, she acknowledged that there was only one way of confronting it; she would have to go in after it herself. I’ll call him in the morning.
The air in the apartment began to stir, just as its tenant. Having emerged fresh from the shower he lied back down on his mattress in the early hours of the morning and waited for the first glimpse of light to enter. A window was left open to the side of his bed. Somehow, even in the early months of winter, his apartment was still warm to the point of suffocating him. He lay on top of his sheets, exposed, trying to cool down.
The place was small, not unlike anyone else’s in the area when it came to living space. All that was offered to him when he decided to take on the lease was a bathroom, a bedroom, and a kitchen that also mirrored as the living room. He did not mind the lack of living space; he considered himself as someone who did not need, nor want, much in the way of amenities in order to live. The only thing he allowed himself to have, which he thought was inessential, was a modest sized television set and the occasional carton of beer. The rest of the unused space was left barren, lacking any sense of personal décor or ornamentation. Throughout the night, Marshall had been in and out of consciousness before finally deciding to open up the window and let the temperature drop in the apartment. He took this time, as brief as it may be, to secure afew more moments of reflection before it was time.
He felt a pleasurable tingle of excitement well in his body. It had been such a long time since he had seen her face. The winter air continued seeping into the apartment, slowly brushing up against his skin. Noting its cool caress, he did not move against it, rather, he used it as a tool to keep himself awake and shift his train of thought every couple of minutes.
His mind now landed on the moment he had first laid eyes on the city and what that had meant to him. He returned to that place, but when he saw the scene of a young boy, staring out the passenger seat window of a car as his father drove him, he decided to cut the memory short. He did not wish to dwell in the past any longer. He continued lying there for some time till the first ray of light found its way through his window. Realizing what time it was he began preparing himself for the day ahead. He moved throughout the apartment making little noise as he equipped himself. After, he threw on a jacket and left.
Marshall moved along the sidewalks that lay at the feet of skyscrapers and high-rise buildings. This early in the morning he did not to expect that many people to be outside; but even so, it seemed to be deserted. He chose to travel on foot today seeing as he did not have to travel far; and while his destination was only a couple blocks away from his apartment, the frigid cold had already started to penetrate his clothes, forcing him to consider whether or not walking was a good idea. The traffic this morning was sizable compared to the turnout of pedestrians. Marshall figured they must have traded the walkways in for the road, in an effort to dodge the cold front that had moved into the city. He continued down the street for a while before hanging a right. Having lived in Lockport since adolescence, he never fully adjusted to it. He considered the buildings here, as marvelous as they were, an eyesore that as he passed would always meld into a blurry film, hindering his sight and muddling his train of thought. Again, he rounded another block.
As Marshall neared the address he received a message on his phone. “Almost here?” it read. Pausing to look at it, he noticed something out of the corner of his eye. Or, at least, he thought he had. Noting nothing of importance after turning his head, his view settled on a place that, to him, was not completely unfamiliar.
A skyscraper stood there amongst all the other buildings but clearly in a class of its own. It’s particularly impressive height cast a long shadow that was difficult to match. Looking for a name to attach to the building, Marshall’s gaze was met by a set of wide, black marble pillars stationed in front of its entrance. Instead of a name, he managed to find the building’s street address, “4642” resting above the pillars. He directed his gaze higher to look at the skyscraper in its entirety but quickly lost his focus amidst the rows of tall concrete and glass. Eventually, as he stared upward without aim, he imagined that somehow, the building was looking down on him. He pulled his eyes away and continued walking.
He glimpsed a fleeting smile on her face as he approached.
Standing near the entrance of an alley, she goaded him as he drew nearer.“Been awhile.”
He laughed. “I know. I’m going to take a wild guess and say that you didn’t call me here for…”
She cut him off, “I think I found something, that’s why I asked you to come.”
“Great,” he replied. “That’s why you’re waiting out here in the cold?”
“Well, where are we headed?” he asked.
“Right here”. She nodded to the side of a peculiar, old brick building she had kept at some distance and began leading him further into the alley. “I’ve been staking this neighborhood out for the past week. I think I’ve finally tracked something back to this place.”
“I don’t know…” she sounded hesitant, “I only got a glimpse of it the last time I saw it. From what I could tell it was small and didn’t even seem to realize I was watching it.”
Marshall pondered this for a moment. “Why didn’t you just take it out then?”
“It was too far away.”
Light trickled in from the opposite end of the alley deflecting off of the building’s brick exterior. Marshall quickly noticed that a door had been left open leading to the fire escape above them and could see from the broken windows and swaths of graffiti, that this building had been abandoned for some time. At a total of five stories its bricks had all but faded from their original pigment settling into the hue of a somber, muted brown. They stopped outside a metal door that had been tagged over with graffiti and blended into the side of the structure.
“You have no idea what it is?” he asked.
“None. What do you have on you?”
“My forty-five.” He looked at her curiously.
“That’s alright. We should be able to handle ourselves.”
The interior of the apartment building was blanketed in a coat of dust. Light just made its way inside enough for the pair to get a feel for their surroundings. Debris littered the hall; all around them laid discarded pieces of furniture, damp and torn-up cardboard, and empty bottles of liquor, some of which had been shattered and now hid on the floor underneath all the rest of the garbage.
Marshall laughed. “Seems like we’ve walked into paradise.”
She smirked. “Like usual right?”
The apartments left-behind were in as much of a state of disrepair as the hallway.As they searched them, looking beneath the piles of garbage and through drawers and cabinets, they did not find anything that suggested the presence of their mark. The only items of interest found, was the odd memento or two, items that whispered a bit of history about the places that housed them. Gloria easily ignored these whenever she stumbled across them but Marshall would sit and stare at them for a few seconds before setting them aside.
“What have you been up to lately?” he asked.
Gloria was rummaging through a drawer in a bedroom. “I’ve been making the rounds in the city.”
“Still keeping your nose to the grindstone I see.”
“Well someone has to, things have gotten worse lately.” She finished looking through the drawer and turned to face him.
“You look tired.”
Both her voice and face softened. “I haven’t been able sleeping well for the past couple of days.”
“No, nothing like that.” She broke eye contact. “I’ve just been getting these weird headaches before I go to bed. What about you, keeping busy?”
“You could say that.”
”Do I even want to know?”
“I haven’t been out as much as you, I can say that much for sure. I’m taking a break, decompressing at my place.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
He spoke half-joking, “You know me so well.”
As they moved through the first floor, Gloria felt the full weight of the atmosphere inside the building. The dust that had been slowly filling her lungs began to claw at her throat and after carefully trying to avoid stepping on some piece of scrap or debris every other step she started dragging her feet instead, pushing it out of the way.
They eventually came across a set of staircases parallel to one another, each heading in opposite directions. Neither of the two mentioned anything as they passed. Only once they had finished their sweep and returned did Gloria mention anything. She motioned to the staircase that remained partially hidden behind a half-opened door, leading downstairs. “Let’s block this before we head up.”
Marshall closed the door completely and together they lifted a large wooden dresser that had been left to rot amongst all the other discarded items in the hallway and placed it upright against the door completely covering it.
As they arrived on the second floor, without a word, Gloria paced all the way down the hall toward the opened exit at the end that Marshall had spotted earlier leading to the fire escape. He watched, more than intrigued, as she surveyed the walls in the hallway and as she examined the frame of exit, along with the walls encasing it, he questioned what it was they were pursuing. She walked out onto the rafters of the fire escape and inspected the doorway from the other side, laying her hand against the brick surface of the building before reentering. Marshall met her halfway down the hall as she returned. “You notice anything?”
“No.” her eyes wandered for a bit, “but keep an eye out for any markings or scratches on the walls.”
Another wave of apprehension washed over him. “I thought you said the creature was small.”
“It is…” her voice trailed off.
He began to worry; She never seemed out of it. “Are you feeling alright?”
“Yea,” she came back to her senses, “it’s just another headache.”
“Maybe we should quit. We can come back tomorrow.”
“I’m fine.” Suddenly she was upset. “Don’t mention that again.”
He looked at her for a few moments before turning away. “Alright, if you say so.”
He reached out to open up a nearby door before she stopped him. “Wait.”
She had calmed down. “Let’s start from the stairs and work our way down the hall.”
He answered flatly, “Sure.”
The search on the second floor somehow seemed to provide them even less in the way of information and clues than the first had, even as they went through each apartment more thoroughly than before. All they found, again, were the remnants of personal effects left behind, resting.
As they neared the end of their sweep, Marshall soon found himself distracted as he noticed an old, wooden frame lying in the corner of what was once someone’s living room. He picked up the frame to find that it held an old family photo of a father with his two children, a boy and a girl. The boy, as if he were a monkey, had climbed atop his father’s back as the man hunched over and kept his son from falling off while the girl stood in the foreground away from the two, beaming a smile up towards the camera. The picture was a sigh of relief from the bleak surroundings he found himself amongst.
They made their way back down the hall, heedless of the other, and climbed another flight of stairs. On the way, Gloria had begun to question what, if anything, her eyes had actually seen the week before and if somehow she hadn’t of dreamt the whole incident.
The hallway on third floor was darker than the others they had just searched. Most of the doors on this floor remained closed; the only light that came through from the outside made its way from a small staircase window perched up, behind them. Gloria took lead and opened the nearest apartment door this time, letting some light seep into the hall. She paused as she was entering and turned to speak with her partner. “Go check the other apartments; we need to start covering more space, in case it already left.”
“Yes.” She said. “You don’t like the idea?”
Marshall put his guard up; he could see that she had become agitated. “No, that’s fine.”
“Good.” She entered the flat, leaving him behind.
Marshall started going through the apartment next door.
Each time they finished searching, they left the entrances of each space open on their way out as a sign that it had been searched, letting more light into the hallway. Still unable to confirm the presence of their mark, as they neared the end of it, they met with each other by the stairs.
“I’m guessing you didn’t find anything,” he said.
She sighed. “Nope.”
As Marshall turned to head upstairs, a pang of frustration flashed across her face.
Something was not right. Their attention was arrested by an open doorway down the hall whose contents seemed to be spilling out over onto the rest of the floor as if it were spreading. Drawing their weapons they approached, and passing over a sea moldy sheets and newspaper, before they were even able to glance inside, they were seized by a foul odor that emanated from within.
The apartment was faintly tinted in uneven shades of orange and yellow as light was forced to pass through a thin membrane of aged newspaper taped to cover the insides of the windows in the living room. Some rays of light bled inside, squeezing through cracks in between the newspaper, revealing thin streams of dust as they drifted through the air. Laid wastefully around was an aimless blend of various reading material from glossy magazines, local newspapers scattered with dates from the past decade, and random books, all mangled from having so many pages ripped from them. Along the walls were bursts of writings scrawled on top the wallpaper in black marker; the sloppy penmanship along with the uneven surfaces of the walls made it a challenge for them to read. Damp, ragged furniture with torn and mismatching cushions was delicately spaced out within the living room as if somehow, someone still cared enough and tried to make this space livable.
The stench continued pressing on them, disrupting Gloria’s thoughts. She felt its presence as it pierced her skin and seeped into the crevices of her pores.
Marshall tried making little of the situation, “Ever see anything like this?”
She was slow to respond. “Can’t say that I have.” She moved towards a particular spot in the living room where a hole in the sheet rock blotted out some of the words written on the wall. She spoke with a sense of bewilderment and fascination, “Who did all this?”
“Someone who completely lost it.” He shrugged it off and tried reading some of the inscriptions for himself before stopping. Trying to read the scrawling on these walls was like listening to the hushed and incoherent ramblings of a vagrant you happened to cross on the street. Even if one could understand what it was they were saying, would you really want to? He did not want to stay here any longer than they needed and called out to his partner from across the flat, “I’m checking the rest of these rooms.”
Barely acknowledging him as he left, she was fixated, reading a cluster of words written on the wall. Able to make out the word and phrase “…promises…” and “…miles to go…” her progress was halted by the hole. Staring through into the darkness behind the wall something eventually clicked.
She was now able to clearly remember that night and recalled how that creature had swept her away in dead of night using an unspoken dialect. It conversed with her, both consolingly of her past, when she had failed to fully appreciate what it was she had taken for granted, and joyously of what could be. In fact, this had been only the latest in their string of meetings.
It was only when the creature shot its arms straight up into the air, and grabbed ahold of the ladder attached to the building’s fire escape, deep within the alley, did she recall ever truly fearing for her life. As its body writhed and squirmed against the metal feverishly she reached for the pistol in the glove compartment. She watched in terror as it reached the top of the ladder and then as it ran through the opened exit on the second story colliding with the layers of brick on its way inside. Reliving that moment for the second time, she was now aware that the feeding had already begun.
Marshall had walked through a series of rooms before he noticed a flicker of light poking out from beneath a door. He kept his weapon trained and opened the door. As he did so, an intense wave of heat and pungent odor blasted him square in the face causing him to gag and reel back where he stood.
Flies crowded around a single light bulb that dangled down from the ceiling, its glow quivering; they basked in the dwindling illumination it offered. Looking around the room, he soon discovered the reason for their presence. Lying underneath the covers of a mattress, tucked away in a corner of the room, he recognized the silhouette of a person. Knowing what to expect as he crept towards it, he held his breathe and drew back the covers. It was the decaying corpse of a man. Already, maggots had spread like wildfire on the inside of the corpse’s rotting frame feasting on whatever flesh was leftover. The skin itself had yet to completely expire, instead choosing to linger and cling to the body in patches. The hair at the top of its scalp was left intact but everything else not solid bone had degenerated, receding through the frame of the skeleton, sinking into the mattress. Marshall had become too familiar with these sights he mused. He covered the corpse back up and began seeing what else he could find. There was not much to speak of save the body; only beside the bed, resting on a night table did he find anything of interest. A few notebooks, black markers, and a gas powered lantern.
He called out to Gloria through the series of rooms believing she could hear him. “Hey, I found a body in here!” He then picked up two of the notebooks lying on the table and left the corpse behind, opting to read them in one of the rooms he had passed through on his way here. To his surprise nothing was written inside of the first one, only a smattering of broken lines and abstract shapes drawn out with marker. Something a child might create as they sat uninspired in class he imagined. He let the first notebook fall from his grasp and opened the second one. This one contained a collection of the pages torn out from the many books lying scattered around the apartment. Much like the writing on the walls, the passages bereft of any context did not make sense. The only similarity they all seemed to share was that each page seemed to carry a flair for the mundane and unremarkable. Amusing, he thought.
Leaving the last notebook behind, he returned to the living room and to learn that Gloria was no longer there. Confused, he called out her name. There was no response.He peered through the doorway they had entered through and was now able to see all the way to the far wall that awaited him in the apartment on the opposite side of the floor. She must have gone off on her own again he assumed. Walking out into the into the hall, before he was able to find that the other apartment was completely empty, and had been for a very long time, he noticed something out of the corner of his eye.
He did not want to look. Slowly, he turned his head to find Gloria suspended in midair by the face of a monstrosity. The horror that was before Marshall could almost be described as human-like, at least in form; Marshall quickly noticed the blackish tone of the monster’s skin and the length of its arms that stretched farther than any normal persons would, all the way past the ends of its knees. The surface of its discolored skin was slick and bare; and the flesh looked as though it had been peeled back in places along its torso revealing the black cavities that lied underneath. At the top of this hollow figure rested the monster’s head. There could be no face though, or anything that resided within a creature’s skull as it had completely enveloped his partner’s head within its own. There she hung like a piece of meat dangling on a hook.
As the muscles on the side of the monster’s head slowly rippled, sending waves across its entire body; Marshall understood he had little time to act. He raised his weapon and began meticulously firing at the edges of the monster, wary that a poorly aimed bullet might end his partner’s life instead. He only missed one shot before he clipped the creature on its left shoulder. It stumbled backwards but did not loosen its grip of its prey. Regaining its balance, it legs began to twist in place, nearly tearing its own skin. It left her to in plain view of Marshall’s sight as both lure and shield. It then ran backwards, clumsily, scrapping up against the side of the wall until finally fleeing down the staircase.
Having lost sight of it, as he reached the stairs a large crash rang out from somewhere far below. By the time he returned to the first floor he found that the dresser they had used to block the door leading to the basement had been smashed to pieces; the doorway was now left wide-open. Marshall began his descent, fearing that it was already too late.