“No way,” Bill said. “I’ve got plans tonight.”
“And I’ve got an inspector coming to look at a vacant unit tomorrow morning. Your plans just changed.”
“923,” Denton replied.
“Shit,” Bill muttered. That had been Ms. Shapiro’s apartment, until she’d died several days ago. “Forget it. I’ll fix dishwashers, haul furniture. I’ve even climbed a tree to catch a tenant’s cat before, but you don’t pay me enough to be mopping up an old lady’s blood. What if she had AIDS or something?”
Denton pulled open his filing cabinet and withdrew a pair of yellow, elbow-length rubber gloves.
“The hell I don’t pay you enough,” he said, slapping the gloves onto the desk. “You walk out that door without taking these with you, and you won’t be coming back.”
Bill snorted. “Leaving you minus one handyman, and a whole lotta mess on your hands.”
“Yeah,” Denton said. “I’ll cry myself to sleep over that tonight. After I cruise through the Home Depot parking lot and pick up a Mexican who’ll be happy to do your job for half the pay.”
“What are you doing?” Denton asked, as Bill pulled out his phone and began tapping the screen.
“Canceling my plans,” Bill said, pressing Send and scooping up the gloves in his free hand. “Asshole.”
Bill handled the heavy stuff first, dismantling and disposing of the furniture. He worked his way through the rooms, around the bathroom. Load by load, the halfhearted mementos of an anonymous old woman disappeared into the property’s dumpster until, around sunset, there was only one room left to clean.
If there was ever a memory Bill would have liked to erase, it was of responding to a tenant’s report of a strange smell, and coming upon Ms. Shapiro in her bathroom. She’d been doing a little amateur dentistry when she died, attempting to pull out each of her teeth with a pair of pliers. Her anticoagulant meds hadn’t done her any favors. Somewhere around tooth number eleven, she’d passed out, to eventually bleed to death through her gums.
Bill took a deep breath and opened the bathroom door. “Just rust,” he muttered to himself, as he surveyed the brown crust that coated the floor and sink. “That’s all it is. Just like cleaning up junkyard scrap.”
As he bent to pull the mop bucket closer, a silvery glint behind the toilet caught his eye. Leaning forward, he hooked it with his fingers, and withdrew a bracelet. Fashioned from a wide band of silver, it had turquoise inlay, and was studded with shiny white beads that looked like pearls to Bill. It was a common enough thing to find jewelry in a woman’s bathroom, but Bill was transfixed by the object, running his fingers along each smooth, white bump.
Before he realized what he was doing, Bill had slipped the bracelet onto his wrist. The rubber gloves went on next, and he set to cleaning.
He dragged himself through the front door of his own apartment sometime after midnight. Gus, Bill’s cat, padded up eagerly to be let out for the night, but skidded to a halt at Bill’s feet. He reached down to pet Gus, but the cat recoiled, staring at Bill’s hand. Glancing down, Bill saw the bracelet.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, displaying the gaudy accessory to the cat. “Picked this up earlier, courtesy of the late Ms. Shapiro. What do you think?”
Gus yowled, and streaked into Bill’s bedroom.
“Yeah,” Bill said to the empty room. “I don’t think it suits me, either.”
Kicking off his shoes, he made his way to the bedroom. He managed to slip off the bracelet, setting it on the nightstand, and drop his work belt to the floor before he fell into bed, fully dressed and unconscious.
In his dream, his teeth were falling out. His tongue probed a tooth, felt it wiggle, and contrary to Bill’s futile protestations, pushed it out. This happened over and over again, until Bill forced himself awake, gagging.
His heart, still hammering from the nightmare, increased its tempo when Bill realized he couldn’t move. He wanted to raise a hand to his mouth, to check his teeth, but the limb refused to respond. He tried to wiggle his toes. Nothing. A full-body thrash ended up amounting to a hissed whimper through his nose, and that’s when he realized he wasn’t alone.
There was something hiding in the shadows in the corner. Bill had seen it move when he whimpered, responding to the noise. It stretched out towards him, always in the shadows, which themselves writhed out from the corner in tattered tendrils.
Bill sucked in air for a scream, but the breath whooshed out of him when the thing landed on his chest, its gaunt body in a predatory crouch. Even up close, Bill couldn’t tell what the creature looked like. It seemed to be made of shadows. A skeletal arm, wreathed in darkness, reached for his face. Bill opened his mouth to scream, but couldn’t draw in enough air. He felt the tickle of one of the thing’s fingers as it brushed past his lips. Then, there was the tugging scrape of something sharp against the back of one of his teeth. Bill moaned, and the thing leaned closer. Pulled harder.
Bill’s salvation came with a banshee wail and a streak of grey fur. Gus launched himself at the thing perched on Bill’s chest, and swiped his claws through its midsection. The substance of the creature tore in shadowy wisps, and it shrank back, disappearing into the shadows with a screech.
With a ragged gasp, Bill found himself once more in control of his body. He rolled over into a half-sitting position. His trembling fingers missed the cord of his lamp twice before he was able to switch it on and drive the shadows away from the bed. He sat there for a moment, head in hands, gulping fresh air into his lungs. When he looked up, his eye was drawn by the lamplight glinting off of the bracelet. He stared at the pearls as they winked up at him, and his mind made the connection. No. Not pearls. Teeth.
He bent forward and picked up the hammer from the tool belt at his feet. Gus chirped at him and jumped off of the bed, pausing once to flick his tail in the air before trotting out of the room, toward the front door. Bill stood, picking up the bracelet between thumb and forefinger of his other hand, and followed.
Outside, Bill smiled as the cat scampered off into the cool autumn night. His expression sobered step by step, though, as he approached the end of the driveway with the bracelet and hammer. Kneeling, he dropped the bracelet, and with aching muscles still protesting from earlier, he brought the hammer down on it. He kept at it until nothing remained but a battered strip of silver, turquoise shards, and coarse white dust.
Utterly spent, Bill trudged back inside, dropped the hammer on the floor next to his bed, and collapsed into it again. He was on the edge of sleep, attempting to roll over, when he realized that he couldn’t move again. His eyes flew open, searching the room. He found it on the ceiling. With languid, grasping motions, the creature descended like a spider.
Once more, Bill found himself struggling to breathe, as the loathsome thing reached for his mouth. He didn’t understand. He’d destroyed the bracelet. What did this thing want? A shadowy claw gouged at the enamel of one of Bill’s upper teeth. He couldn’t so much as turn his head away, and he lay there helpless, listening to the crunch within his jaw as his tooth was twisted back and forth. He couldn’t move, but maybe if he could get enough air, he could call out to Gus. The cat had saved him last time.
A memory flickered behind his eyes –a dark furry blur, bounding off into the bushes –and Bill felt a warm wetness trickling from the corner of his mouth. The creature continued its excruciating work uninterrupted.
Bill thought about his tool belt on the floor, mere feet away. The color blue flashed in his mind’s eye. Blue rubber, slightly scuffed from use, sheathed the handles of a compact, but powerful pair of pliers. He understood. He could endure this torture, night after night, or he could take matters into his own hands. Above him, the creature leaned closer, and somewhere in the featureless shadow of its face, Bill was sure it was grinning.
The estate of Austin Malone regrets to inform readers that after uttering the words, “Pumpkin Spice Latte” three times in front of a mirror, the author vanished and was never heard from again. Interested parties are urged to follow @agmalone on Twitter, or /agmalone79 on Facebook for further details.