Our final story for the 2015 13 Stories ‘Til Halloween short story countdown to Halloween is up! “It starts with the tapping. Then the crawling. But I’m getting ahead of myself.”
“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.
Kristoff awoke in darkness. He was upright, bound tightly across chest and waist, with his head engulfed in some sort of rough fabric. With a violent start, he flailed at his restraints, and the oppressive material fell away from his face. His first gasp of air ended with a retching cough as the overpowering stench of gasoline filled his mouth. His eyes adjusted, and as his vision returned, so did his memory.
He was in the car. Martin had been driving. A quick glance at Martin’s limp form, then down at the man’s blood-streaked pants leg confirmed Kristoff’s earlier suspicion that Martin had been hit. What should’ve been a textbook holdup had gone epically FUBAR and now here he was, up shit creek, with his paddle smashed into twisted scrap against the trunk of a massive tree.
An orange flicker from between the creases of the crumpled hood caught his attention. He jabbed his thumb with enough force to dislocate it against the belt’s release button. It didn’t disengage. Kristoff swore and pressed harder, sublimating the shooting pain in his thumb with thoughts of being roasted alive. It gave way under his renewed assault with a click. The straps slithered away, hissing like snakes as they went, and Kristoff felt suddenly weightless. He bent to scoop up the satchel from the floorboards, and barreled shoulder first through the partially opened passenger door into the night.
He was about fifty yards away when the car went up in flames. Kristoff broke into a trot down the highway. He had to get out of there. If the cops weren’t already on the way from the liquor store fiasco, they’d definitely get called in to investigate a burning car with a charred corpse behind the wheel. He glanced at the marsh to his right. Out of the question. He wouldn’t make two miles over that terrain before the cops and their bloodhounds were on his heels. His only chance was to hitch a ride and get the hell out of there.
Slinging the satchel across his back, he started to jog. He’d gone a little over a mile when he saw the light ahead. A single headlamp crested the invisible horizon, growing brighter as it bore down on Kristoff. A moment later he heard the buzz of its engine. The pitch was too high for a car. For that matter, it didn’t sound like a cop’s bike either. He formed a mental image of a bored hillbilly teenager tearing around on a Kawasaki crotchrocket.
“Let’s go, Bubba-Joe,” he said as he stepped into the motorcycle’s path. “Gimme my ticket to ride.”
It was upon him sooner than he expected. Panicked, he waved his arms and yelled. The driver pulled the bike into a sharp turn, and between one heartbeat and the next, the bike had deftly cut around Kristoff to disappear behind him.
Kristoff ground his teeth and cursed. Unclenching his fists, he willed himself to relax. After a slow count of ten, he was jogging down the breakdown lane again. Within a couple of minutes, he heard the drone of the motorcycle behind him, returning. He stopped and turned to face the biker.
The motorcycle pulled up alongside him, and Kristoff noted with surprise that the driver was female. Clad in black leather that hugged her curves with an intimacy he envied, she peered at him with wide eyes through the sable curtain of her hair.
“Is that your car back there?” she asked.
He nodded. “Yup. Don’t suppose you’d mind giving me a lift to the next town over, huh?”
She shook her head. “The next town over is eighty miles away,” she said. “You’d be better off going back the way you came.”
“Can’t do that,” he said. “I just got back from overseas. Got an uncle offering me a job and a place to stay. I was just passing through that last place. Stopped to get a beer, and some of the locals started giving me a hard time.” He waved a hand at his fatigues.
She arched an eyebrow. “And?”
“And I took them outside and gave ‘em a hard time right back.” He grinned.
“So, you’re thinking they might be holding a grudge, and keeping an eye out for you,” she said.
After a minute’s consideration, she patted the seat behind her. “Come on,” she said. “I can’t take you all the way, but I know a place a few miles down the road where you can rest up for the night. I’m Morgan, by the way.”
“Pleased to meet you,” he said as he took her hand and climbed onto the bike behind her.
“Hang on tight,” she said, and with that, they were off.
With his arms around her midsection and his face buried between her shoulder blades, Kristoff had no way of knowing how far or fast they were traveling. At some point, the exhilaration of the ride gave way to something more primal. He became aware of the soft heat of her body as he pressed against it. The scent of her hair in his face was musky, like incense, and his heartbeat quickened. Slowly, he inched his hands up from her waist, feeling the smooth leather slide under his palms as they caressed her flat stomach, and moved higher still. He was pleasantly surprised when he encountered the soft swell of her breasts unhindered by underwire. His fingers traced circles around her nipples. He could feel them, hard even through the leather.
Morgan downshifted then, and the bike slowed.
“Shit,” he muttered. “I’m sorry, miss. It’s just been a while, and…”
She laughed. “Don’t apologize. I’m not kicking you off. We’re almost there.”
He raised his head to look over her shoulder as she piloted the motorcycle off of the highway. He didn’t see a marker for the road, and from what little he could see of the hard-packed dirt trail, calling it a road may have been generous. Before long, their destination came into view. A neon vacancy sign flickered below a larger sign that simply read: “Hotel.” The building itself was a shapeless mass of darkness that lurked behind the sign.
Morgan parked the bike in the hotel’s empty lot, and they dismounted.
“Is this place even open?” Kristoff asked.
Morgan grabbed his hand and hauled him toward the entrance. “Come on, lover,” she said with a laugh. “Let’s get you tucked in for the night.”
Kristoff didn’t get much of a chance to inspect his surroundings as they entered the lobby. Morgan hustled him past the desk where a bored-looking young man glanced up from a ragged novel just long enough to toss a plastic-fobbed key onto the countertop. She scooped it up as they passed, and led Kristoff down a dimly-lit hallway. Morgan paused at the door to unlock it before sweeping it open with a flourish.
“Ta-daa,” she sang.
Kristoff entered the room and barked a laugh. The chamber was dominated by a sagging heart-shaped bed the color of dried blood. His eyes tracked upward and saw a soot-stained mirror on the ceiling above. Curious.
Morgan eased the door shut and snaked around in front of Kristoff. With a coy glance over her shoulder, she gave his belt a tug, loosening it, before slinking away to perch on the edge of the bed.
“Well, loverboy,” she purred. “Let’s see if we can pick up where we left off. Show me what those busy little hands of yours can do.”
Kristoff crossed the room in two paces, hands outstretched. He stopped just short of touching her, though. Something was wrong. He peered at his hands. They looked different. As he watched, his flesh darkened, and his skin rippled as though his blood was bubbling beneath its surface. With that came an intense itching, followed immediately by a bone-deep ache, as his flesh blistered and began to peel.
“What?” he gasped, and that was all he could manage before searing pain exploded across his entire body. He tried to scream, but was unable to produce more than a quavering whimper. He sank to the floor, curling in on himself as his skin ruptured and sloughed off in tarry chunks.
“There are two things I should have told you, lover,” Morgan’s voice lilted. “First thing: you didn’t escape the fire.”
Kristoff writhed and mewled like an injured animal. There was no escape from the pain, no portion of his body that wasn’t a nexus point for currents of agony. He could hear her laughing at his pain. Worse were the voices of the others, tittering and giggling, muttering and whispering. They crashed against his frayed nerve endings like a jagged wave.
“Tell him,” they cackled. “Make him understand.”
“The second thing, darling,” she said, her voice dropping to a violent hiss. “You didn’t. Escape. The Fire.”
Austin Malone is a writer of short fiction who resides in Texas with his wife, daughter, and an indeterminate number of cats. His work has previously appeared in Bloody Parchment (Vol. 2), A Fancy Dinner Party, and Penny Dreadfuls: Halloween Special. He neither blogs nor tweets, but invites readers to check out his goodreads page to find out more about his work.