Fort Worth, Florida
People have never been my strong suit. It was Zoey’s, that’s for sure; she could waltz into a room full of strangers and be completely at ease. When she talked, she always knew just what to say and, more importantly, how to say it. But me? I stumble over my words. I’m never quite certain how my remarks will come across. And as for reading people, forget about it. I have a hard enough time picking up what people think are obvious, much less gaining insight from their body language. I’ve gotten better at it over time, interviewing people regularly for four years will do that to you, but in the end I have to admit that I still suffer from the exact same weakness I’ve always had: people are not my strong suit.
But part of me wonders if I’m really that abnormal. Sometimes I can’t help but question if anyone, Zoey included, really has any ability at all to understand the people around us. Sometimes I think that, similar to the fake reality Archangel uses to hide the real one, we all live in a social Veneer, each of us expecting each other to behave a certain way and subtly preparing the other side to act that role with our words and gestures. We interact with these ‘fake’ others constructed in our heads, instead of the real people underneath, and those who are ‘good with people’ are simply ones that are able to determine their role quickly, or perhaps slip into it more eagerly.
That might just be my cynicism coloring my view of things. Heaven knows I have enough of it nowadays. And believe it or not, I would love to be wrong. I would love to be wrong about so many things. But thinking back on the events of ‘Perfect Strangers’… I’m just not sure I am.
Zoey squinted at the numbers on the paper in front of her, then asked “Liam, how the hell does any of this make sense to you?”
We were driving across the panhandle of Florida. In an effort to stretch out the ever-decreasing budget, we decided to call the state ‘good’ after visiting Fort Worth, instead of driving into the heart of the state like we had originally planned, and were now in the process of cutting straight up and back West, hoping to get somewhere near the Pacific before the money got even tighter.
I looked over from behind the wheel. Zoey had my hand-written budget ledger in her lap, reading, frowning, and occasionally turning the book sideways and upside-down as if that would help her understand the math there. She’d insisted on going through it in order to help me rebalance the money and up to this point, she’d been fairly quiet despite being obviously baffled. Too proud to admit defeat, I guess. But now it sounded like she was getting close to surrender.
“It’s a simple model,” I replied. “The first column is projected costs, the second is allotted money, the third actual costs…”
“You have a whole three pages in here for just fuel!” she interrupted. She flipped to a marked section and began running her finger down a line. “What’s this part? 281, 3.12, 87.68…”
“Those are gas price estimates for different sections of the trip.” I paused. “Come to think of it, I should probably go over those numbers again, now that I’ve gotten a better average than just ten miles per gallon…”
“Wait, sections of the trip?”
“Yeah. The first number’s the mileage to the next stop, then average gas price for that city during that week based on the last four years, then divided by miles per gallon for price…”
“You mean your fuel budget is based on the mileage of each part of the trip individually?”
“I mean, with an additional variance built in just to be on the safe side...”
“And these numbers are based on not only when we fuel, but where we fuel?”
I began to blush. “Well, once you know where to find those figures, it’s not that hard to calculate...”
Zoey held out the ledger at arm’s length, staring at it in wonder. “Liam, it’s stuff like this that make me wonder if you weren’t just grown in a lab.”
“I mean this is all just standard accounting…” I mumbled. My eyes caught a blue sign that read ‘rest stop 2 mi., next rest stop 58 mi.’ “Hey, I’m gonna pull over at this rest stop. Why don’t we switch drivers, and I’ll look at the budget and boil it down to something simpler to comprehend?”
Zoey snorted. “Yeah, sure. And once you’re done with that, you can go and invent time travel or something.” But she didn’t object to me pulling over and using the rest station’s bathroom. People who have had to empty out an RV septic tank rarely do.
“There vending machines there?” Zoey asked, and before I could reply, she added “and before you say anything, 75 cents from my pocket is not going to destroy your lovingly-crafted budget.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Did you honestly expect me to scold you over three quarters?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know.” She rubbed her eyes and groaned. “This money stuff has me all frustrated and stressed. I can see why you’re so grumpy every day.”
I opened my mouth to protest, then decided that it’d be less work to let the statement lie than get into an argument with a baffled and annoyed Zoey, so instead I just said “yeah, looks like they do. Have vending machines, I mean.”
I moved the RV into one of the extra-long spaces designed for vehicles of that length, shut off the engine, and got out. Zoey did so as well, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw her put the small hand-held camcorder up to her face.
I sighed. “Really?”
“What?” she replied.
“It’s just a rest stop.”
“A Florida rest stop,” she said, giving her voice a mocking, spooky waver. “Who knows what horrors await us?” Grinning, she shrugged. “Besides, people have been asking for a behind-the-scenes look for a while now. This can go in there.”
“People?” I asked. “What people?”
“Y’know, people,” she answered, and strolled into the rest stop. I shook my head and followed.
The rest stop itself was a fairly typical member of its species. It consisted of a large brick area fenced in by a set of floor-to-ceiling windows at the front and the back, glass doors allowing access. On the left was a brick wall with an entrance into the men’s, on the right, the women’s. Two vending machines sat in one corner. The opposite corner had a stand filed with brochures and flyers for local attractions and hotels. A large map of Florida, complete with roads, hung on one wall, and the other had a large TV displaying the Weather Channel. Utilitarian and bland: the ideal decoration style for a municipal building.
It was busy, though. There was an older Asian man staring at the Florida map and muttering to himself, a middle-aged white guy flipping through brochures, and an elderly black lady sitting on a wooden bench in the middle of the room. We paid them no mind as we split off to our separate tasks: Zoey over to the vending machines, and me to the restrooms.
I stepped in, awkwardly shuffled around another man leaving, finished my business, and went to go wash my hands, only discovering after they were well and soaked that the only drying tools here were those ancient blow dryers that sound like a jet engine and have all the power of an asthmatic elephant coughing through its trunk. I pushed the button, left my hands there until it cut off, and pushed the button again. I wasn’t going to leave here with wet hands, or wet jeans, for that matter, and I could already tell that this was going to be one of those moments where pure stubbornness held more sway than common sense.
I had just finished pass three and was going in for four when a sudden outburst stopped me, a collection of barking, whimpering, and yelling so loud and so sudden it almost felt like a physical slap in the face. Crusade against the hand drier forgotten, I walked out to see what it was.
In the center of the room was a furry mass of white and brown, a large St. Bernard dog, with his face buried in the lap of the old woman, huffing, whining, and growling. Behind him, grabbed on tight to his leash, was another woman with the same coffee-colored skin as the elderly one but perhaps thirty years younger, and everyone inside the rest stop was staring at the display.
The younger woman tugged at the line, trying to get the big dog to move back, but it acted as if it didn’t even feel the attempt. “I don’t know, Ma. One minute he’s doing his thing, the next he’s dragging me back here, whining all the way.”
“He’s scared,” the old woman said. “Poor thing. I haven’t seen him this worked up since that alligator tried to take a nap in his dog house.”
“But why?” the other woman asked.
As if on cue, the glass doors swung open and two more people burst into the room: one a little girl, maybe seven, bawling tears and running over to the middle-aged guy, and the other a woman, also middle aged, trying to keep up and looking worried.
“Daddy!” the girl cried, immediately wrapping her arms around the man and burying her face in his shirt.
“Sweetie? Sweetie, what’s wrong?” He looked utterly baffled and afraid.
“M-m-m…” the girl tried. “M-m-mo…”
“I don’t know what came over her,” the woman said, catching up to the pair. “One minute she’s playing on the playground, then she’s screaming and crying. She bolted right over here.”
“Honey, what’s the matter?” the father tried more urgently. “Please. Was it an animal? A person? Did someone try to do something to you?”
“Monster!” the girl suddenly shrieked. “Monster! With big claws and sharp teeth and… an…” she collapsed into his shirt again, wailing, and the father hugged her, expression still one of absolute bewilderment.
I slid over to Zoey. “What’s going on?”
“No clue,” she said. “I was minding my own business and then suddenly… this.”
I glanced from the crying girl to the whimpering dog, then back to Zoey. “This doesn’t look good.”
“Yeah,” she agreed.
“Is your spooky sense telling you anything?” I asked, ‘spooky sense’, being the name I had given to Zoey’s apparent sensitivity to the supernatural.
She scrunched up her face. “No… but outside of the fact that I don’t feel cold, there’s not a whole lot I can give you.”
“C’mon,” I said, and motioned her over to the glass doors with me. I moved to open them, then stopped as the door swung outwards and almost knocked me over as a man stomped in behind it.
“The hell is with the fog?” he grumbled, ignoring me and going over to the TV, stopping in front of it and scowling at the Weather Channel.
I stared at him, then turned back to the glass. Sure enough, fog, thick, rolling clouds of it, now covered the outside so completely you couldn’t even see the cars parked no more than ten feet away in the parking lot.
“There could be anything out there,” I muttered.
Zoey shuddered. “That’s not exactly a comforting thought. What do we do, Liam?”
“Give me a second to think.” I sat down on one of the wooden benches inside, then turned back to look at the group. “... six, seven, nine, including us…. Zoey, can you make sure they stay inside, just in case?”
“Easier said than done,” she mumbled, but began to walk towards the others.
I pulled out my phone. No service. Part of me thought about calling Zoey back over to see if her phone fared any better, but I decided against it. Mine was usually the more reliable of the two and besides, I had coverage just a second ago, so I had a hunch that everyone else in the rest area would discover the same thing with their own cell.
Which meant that we were isolated.
Perhaps on purpose.
I stared back out to the fog, going over possible explanations. Option one was that this was a huge set of bizarre coincidences, which I didn’t believe. More importantly, operating under that assumption was dangerous. So, onto option two: there was something out there, in the fog: the monster, the thing the girl and the dog had gotten so freaked out about. The question was, is this blanket of mist and the subsequent phone outage a purposeful thing, like the way the thing in the pit threatens us after taking it’s beloved’“orphans’, or was it some strange side effect, like how we had gotten swept away with Sims when the Hotel California came to take him away?
“Move,” someone shouted behind me, and I snapped out of my train of thought. The man who had stepped in front of us earlier, a big guy in a baseball cap and a t-shirt that read “tailgaters will be fertilized!” was in front of Zoey, trying to get around her as she kept shimming into his path.
“You can’t,” she insisted.
She hesitated. “There was an accident in the parking lot. The cop asked us to stay inside while they sort it out.”
“An accident?” the woman with the little girl asked. She craned her neck around, and the girl stopped sniffling in order to see what her mother was so interested in.
“Yeah…” Zoey said, not sounding confident at all. “It’s kind of a bad one.”
A brief flicker of motion appeared in my peripheral vision. I turned to look, but all I saw past the doors were the layers of thick, swirling fog.
“I don’t see any lights,” the middle aged black woman said.
“Maybe you just can’t see them through the fog,” her elderly mother responded.
The first woman rolled her eyes. “You’d still be able to see flashing lights, Ma.”
“Look, everyone just sit still,” Zoey pleaded. “I’m sure the cop will be back in just a second to explain everything.”
A second stir of movement caught my eye, and this time, I did see something. A silhouette of something slinked towards the doors, then darted off to the right. It was there for just a second, but my brain high on adrenaline captured the image perfectly: a gray, human shape, hunched over, arms almost touching the ground, shuffling along with a speed that seemed impossible given its posture. Human shaped…
But definitely not human.
“Zoey…” I whispered.
“This is stupid,” the baseball cap man replied. “Let me get back to my truck.”
Zoey shook her head. “You can’t. The cop…”
“Can talk to me face to face if he wants to keep me cooped up here,” the man snapped. “Now get out of my way!” He took a large step forward, but Zoey scrambled ahead of him, staying in his path.
The creature came back into view. It’s shadow reappeared in the path, moving along in that strange posture, like a hunchbacked Igor in a black and white monster movie. Now I could see more details: long arms, coming down past the knees easily as it moved bent over, strange, curling finger and toe nails, like you would see on a sloth, on the end of each digit, angular bones poking out of emaciated skin.
It began to move faster.
“Zoey…” I hissed.
“Lady if you don’t stop this second, I’ll physically make you,” the man warned.
The creature lunged, and now it was out of the fog. Time slowed as its image became burned into my brain. Pale. Skin as white as sheet paper. Thin, with sharp bones visible beneath, and a multitude of thin red cuts and purple bruises all along its body. Large, oily black eyes, devoid of any other color. Curling brown claws. And a circular, leech-like mouth filled with hundreds of tiny, needle teeth, with a whippy, wormy tongue trailing out of the center.
“Listen,” Zoey protested, “I’m trying to…”
“Zoey!” I shouted, springing to my feet, “the door!”
Zoey turned and saw the thing right as it reached the double glass doors. Without any hesitation, both of us threw out bodies at the doors, bracing up against them as the creature threw his full weight at it, shoving the panes into our shoulder and forcing us to dig our heels in to keep from being bowled over by the force of it.
Chaos erupted behind us. Several people began screaming, individual voices lost in the noise. The little girl began to hysterically shout “the monster, Daddy, the monster!” while the dog began to snarl and growl.
The monster reeled back and shoved, and we braced again. Strange, snot-like liquid smeared off of its skin and onto the few inches of glass separating us from it. It clawed the glass like a crazed animal. Slowly, a small sliver of the doorway began to peel open. It reached a hand through the expanding space…
My eyes widened as I saw it happen. I shouted something incoherent, my heart thudded harder, and a sudden burst of strength surged through my body as I slammed into the door again. It shut on the creature’s outstretched fingers, and after a high-pitched yelp similar to a dog’s panicked cry when you step on its tail and a blur of motion, it retreated into the fog.
Zoey and I leaned on the doors, just looking at each other and panting. Slowly, my mind returned to me, and I began to register the sounds of hysteria still emanating from the group beyond.
“”Holy fuck and Mother Mary…” the baseball cap man muttered.
“WHAT WAS THAT?!?” the mother of the young girl shouted. “HAROLD, WHAT WAS THAT?”
“I…” the father stuttered back. “I… I…”
“Ma!” the black woman shouted, followed by loud woofing. She was holding her mother in her arms, the older woman having fainted.
“Hold these for a sec,” I gasped, then hurried over to the janitorial closet near the men’s restroom. It was unlocked, thank heavens, and I fished out a long mop, ran back, and threaded the sturdy pole through the handles.
“Now… what?” Zoey panted.
I paused, letting my breathing get back to normal. “Well, remember what you said before? I do weird, and you do…” I gestured out to the mass of people.
She gave me a brief, annoyed look. “Gee, thanks.”
“No problem. I’m going to check the perimeter while you’re doing that, understand where we’re trapped in.”
“You do that,” she called after me as I began to walk away. She took one more look at the gathered crowd, gave a long, drawn-out sigh, and clambered to the top of a wooden bench.
“Can I have your attention please?” I heard Zoey’s voice cry out as I walked into the men’s restroom again. I began cataloging the room: stalls, sinks, urinals, a small set of squat windows set up high in the wall. I made my way over to those first.
Meanwhile, the voices outside continued to babble.
“Excuse me?” Zoey shouted again. “HEY!” The chatter died down, and she followed it up with a softer “thank you.”
“Who the hell are you?” the baseball cap man shot back.
I had to stand on the ends of my toes to reach the windows. They were small, maybe the size of a car license plate, and set into hinges that let them move a few inches inward, less opening them and more making a space to vent the room if needed. Confident that the thing outside couldn’t use these to sneak in, I closed the few open ones regardless and headed out to the other side of the building.
“My name is Zoey,” she announced, “and that there’s Liam.” I gave a cursory wave as I headed into the women’s restroom.
“He can’t go in there,” someone whispered.
“Bigger problems,” someone whispered back.
“And we,” Zoey interrupted loudly, “are going to fix this, but in order to do that, we need everyone to remain calm and listen to us, okay?”
The women's restroom was the same as the men’s, minus the urinals obviously. More importantly, the walls remained the same, with the only opening to the outside world the same small squat windows. I headed back out.
“You know what that thing is?” the black woman asked. She was still holding her mother, who seemed to be slowly regaining consciousness.
“No,” Zoey admitted, “but we’re used to dealing with this kind of weird. We’ve solved similar things, we’ll do it again.”
“The front doors are the only entrance and exit,” I told her as I walked past to get to the glass front doors. “No one in the stalls either, so everyone’s out here.”
She nodded at me, then turned back to the group. “Like I said, we can fix this, but only if everyone stays calm and does what we say.”
“And why should we trust you?” ball-cap demanded again.
I looked over the glass. It was thick, at least. That was good. It appeared to be similar to the glass I had wailed on with a baseball bat during the “Alone” episode, and that made me feel a bit better. Even with time, tools, and drive to destroy, that stuff had been practically indestructible.
And yet I could see small, hairline cracks around the handles.
Practically indestructible, I thought to myself, but better to not rely on it.
“Holy shit man,” a new voice piped up, “did you not see what just happened? If they hadn’t stopped you from waltzing out there, you’d be dead.”
I turned and studied the group for the first time, trying to imprint the faces into my memory. First, there was the family of three: a small little girl somewhere between six to eight, pale skin, light blond hair, and bright green eyes. She was almost a carbon copy of her mother, a woman with all the same features, but older and taller. The deviation was the father, pale skinned as well, but with dark eyes and a deep brown hair and beard instead.
Then there were the two women with the rich coffee-colored skin. The younger, fifty maybe, had straight jet black hair and wore a business suit and slacks. The older one, eighty at least, had a frizzy grey nest of hair and a lavender dress. Between them, the big St. Bernard sat panting, stopping every so often to look up at one of them and softly whine.
Past that, there just were the individuals. Ball-cap guy and “tailgate fertilizer” was a big dude with peach skin and ginger whiskers. Seated next to him was a bald, hunched over Asian man, bronze face almost impossibly wrinkled, leaning onto his cane for support. And at the back was an olive-skinned man with short black hair, glasses, and an orange polo shirt that read “Geek Squad '' in tiny letters on the breast pocket; the source of the most recent comment, apparently.
Everyone turned to look at him.
“I mean it’s true.” He shuffled from one foot to the other. “They stopped him from walking out there and meeting… whatever the hell that thing was. And call me crazy, but I don’t really think it looked friendly.”
They seemed to collectively consider this, then turned back to Zoey.
Zoey stared at the man. “What’s your name?”
“M-me?” he stammered. He took off his glasses and began to polish them on his shirt. “My name’s Jim.”
“Alright Jim,” Zoey said. “What about you?” she asked the man in the baseball cap.
“Dale,” he grumbled, and as Zoey’s eyes traveled the room, one by one they gave their names.
“”Harold,” the father said.
“M...Marissa,” the mother said.
“Ada!” the girl cried.
“Kathy,” the younger black woman said.
“Ruth,” her mother followed.
“Mr. Yang,” the Asian man declared, rounding out the group.
“Alright,” Zoey said. “Now, in order to get out of this, we need you all to stay inside. Nobody goes outside, no matter what. Stay in this common area where we can keep an eye on you. If you do have to use the bathrooms, take someone with you to wait outside the stalls while you finish. And above all, keep your cool. That’s the best way to stay safe right now.” She turned to me to see if I had anything to add. I started to shake my head, then paused.
“Does anyone have any signal on their phones right now?” I asked.
I got a round of dull looks, then everyone pulled out their phones. A chorus of ‘no’s responded.
“Keep an eye on that,” I said. “If you do get a signal, let me know, then call 911 right away.”
Whispers began to circulate around the room as Zoey hopped off of the bench. “Do you really think that any cops are going to believe this story?”
“No, but I think that there’s a chance that kind of call might catch Archangel’s attention.” Zoey grimaced, and I raised my hands. “I don’t like them any more than you, but if we can get the help…”
“Yea,h yeah, I know,” Zoey replied. “So now that the people are finished, what are we going to do about the weird?”
“I have no idea,” I said, looking at the swirling fog outside. “I don’t even know what this specific weird is.”
“So spitball at me until you come up with something plausible.” Zoey said, sitting down on a nearby bench.
“Well,” I began, “right now I’m debating how intelligent this thing is. If it meant to trap us, it did a pretty good job. No cell signal means no cry for help, and with that fog out there, there’s no way we can try to get back to our cars. With that kind of visibility, it could pick us off one by one before we realize it.”
“That sounds pretty smart.”
“It does. But on the other hand, that thing did look pretty feral. There’s a chance it could just be some strange side-effect the thing has, like how we both got dragged into the Hotel California even though it only came for Sims. Plus, there’s the fact that we could have fallen into one of those secret space pockets again and that’s why this stuff is here, which could mean that we’re stranded here forever.”
“One problem at a time,” Zoey said. “Anything else you can figure out about the thing outside?”
“Yeah.” I swallowed. “It’s definitely hunting us.”
Zoey fidgeted. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. The way it was moving, head low, stalking, and then how it charged for the doors… this thing isn’t some stray, neutral piece of strange that just happened to drift in, like the others. This thing is an actively hunting predator, and right now, we’re the prey.”
“When you say ‘us’, do you mean everyone in here or…” She glanced around and lowered her voice, “...do you mean ‘us’ us?”
I thought back to the bunny man, fuming at us on the edge of the church parking lot. I’ll tell the Parthenon, old and new. There will be no mercy for warlocks who ally themselves with the god of light.
“I don’t know.” I gave a slightly spiteful chuckle. “Man, our lives are really fifty shades of screwed up if we need to start asking ourselves that.”
“So what?” Zoey said with a shrug. “If all they can do is send that skinny little bitch at us, I think we’ll be fine. It’s ten times less scary than Red Eyes, and we sent that thing packing.”
“I think the fact that we have that benchmark to compare to proves my point,” I mumbled, but the comment did make me feel better.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw four figures approaching us, ball-cap, no Dale, I reminded myself, use the names, Jim, Kathy, and Harold.
“Hey,” Zoey said. “You guys doing alright?”
“Well as we can be, I guess,” Harold replied. “Marissa’s pretty shaken up.”
Zoey nodded. “Can’t say I blame her. Is there anything I can help you with?”
They stirred nervously. Finally, Jim asked “You said you’ve dealt with this thing before?”
“Not this one,” I said.
“Specifically,” Zoey added quickly. “We deal with weird a lot though.”
“Weird like this?” Kathy asked.
“You bet.” Zoey smiled. “Any of you heard of a webshow called ‘Creepy America?’”
They all shook their heads.
“Pity. Look it up when you get home.” She waved her camcorder. “Point is, we investigate this kind of stuff.”
Harold frowned. “So you knew this was here? There was a history in the area, or sightings, or whatever?”
“No, not really. Sometimes we find the weird, sometimes the weird finds you.”
Zoey was beginning to look uncomfortable, so I jumped in. “We’ve handled creatures like this before, though. Give us some time and we’ll figure out how to get rid of it.”
“Well that’s why we’re here,” Jim said. I stared at him, and he looked down and began to polish his glasses again. “We were talking and we decided that we wanted to ask if you guys wanted any help.”
Zoey blinked. “Help?”
“Is that thing dangerous?” Harold asked.
Zoey hesitated. “Well…”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Then it’s threatening my wife and child.” Harold’s mouth turned into a scowl. “And I’m not just going to sit around while it does.”
“Same with me and my mother,” Kathy said. “In fact, we all feel similarly.”
I leaned over, looking at the others at the back of the room. “What about them?”
Jim grimaced. “They’re… less eager.”
“Well thank you,” I said. “I’ll let you guys know when I think of something.”
“Why don’t we just attack it?” Dale blurted out.
We all turned to look at him.
“Are you nuts?” Jim asked.
“I don’t care how freaky it looks,” he replied. “We go out there, it’s six against one.”
“But the fog…” I began.
Dale rolled his eyes. “Well obviously we don’t split up. Move as a group. Wail on it if it tries anything. If not, there’s the chance one of us could get their car and go get help.”
I thought about it. I had to admit, it was tempting. The thing wasn’t superhuman, after all; Zoey and I had won our little tug-of-war against it. And math was math. Six against one was good odds no matter how you stacked it.
But it had also tried to force its way in after it had seen that all of us were inside. Even if it wasn’t hiding a trick up its sleeve, that level of ferocity could get someone seriously hurt, even dead, before we had a chance to return the favor.
“No,” I shook my head. “It’s still too risky.”
“And who put you in charge?” Dale demanded.
Jim chuckled nervously. “They’re just trying to…”
“Fuck what they’re trying to do!” Dale shouted. The other group was now looking over at us. “I was fighting Viet Cong before you were born, boy. I’m not going to let some fucking pasty freak of nature make me…”
“Dale,” Zoey shouted. “Dale!”
He stopped and turned to her.
“No one’s doubting your courage,” she said, “or your ability to kick ass. And if it comes to that, you’ll be the first to know. But we need to make sure we know what we’re dealing with before we go guns blazing.”
“What we’re dealing with…?” He shook his head. “You saw that thing. It’s just a rabid animal.”
“Maybe,” I said. They looked at me and I returned the gaze. “Have you thought about where that fog came from, or why none of our phones have signal?”
A look of dread crossed over Kathy’s face. “Shit.”
“Exactly. I’m not saying it’s off the table, but we need to make sure that we know what exactly this thing is capable of before we try anything like that.” I returned to staring at the fog outside.
Harold cleared his throat. “So, uh… what do we do?”
“Go back to the others,” Zoey said. “Keep them calm. If we need more help, we’ll let you know, but right now, that’ll help us more than anything.”
The group stood there for a moment, then began to awkwardly shuffle away.
“Wait,” I said. “Jim!”
Jim looked at me, then headed back.
“Do you know how someone would jam cell phone signals?” I asked.
He looked at me, confused, then saw the “Geek Squad” logo on his shirt and blushed. “Listen man, I just go around rebooting computers for old people.”
“Can you give me anything?” I insisted.
He hesitated. “Well… I mean, there are jammers out there. They’re illegal, but I’m sure you could get your hands on one if you really wanted to. Other than that, there’s tin foil or…” he looked to the ceiling and frowned.
I looked up as well. Large sheets of painted brown aluminum lined the space above.
“Or metal roofs,” I finished.
I sighed. “Alright, thanks.”
He walked off, and Zoey slid next to me. “Guess we should settle in. Looks like we might be here a while.”
An hour passed in that small, claustrophobic rest area. The fog refused to clear. The thing outside could be seen, doing it’s strange hunched walk, but it didn’t try to rush the doors again. The people inside with us huddled in nervous, whispering groups.
And so the standoff continued with no end in sight.
While I was staring at the glass doors, trying to come up with a plan or even just make up my mind about what was happening, Zoey traversed the rest stop, alternating between conversing with me and engaging with the rest of the group, keeping the calm alive as best she could. I barely realized that was what she was doing; I was so focused on trying to figure out some way out of this mess.
And failing miserably. This thing, this problem, it existed in a vacuum. Every other time, there was something, some location, some thing, some random piece of information, that I could trace back to the source. From there, the conclusions could come. But this time, there was nothing, and there was no way to find that magic bullet I depended upon so much.
Well, there was one way…
I looked outside, into the mists, then shook my head. No. Too dangerous.
And if that’s the only way forward? my mind asked back.
“Hungry?” I looked up to see Zoey offering a small bag of peanuts in my direction.
“Kind of,” I admitted, taking the bag. “Wanna split them?”
“No thanks,” she said, withdrawing an identical bag from her own pocket. “Got my own. Plus, Dale helped me break the vending machines, so we got some options.”
I turned and looked. Sure enough, both the snack and the drinks machine doors were wide open, exposing their contents, and Ada was busy grabbing as many candy bars as she could hold.
“I think the state of Florida might take offense to your actions,” I said.
“It’s their shitty rest stop,” Zoey replied. “Least they can do is feed us while we’re stuck here.”
“Mmmph.” I watched Ada run off, hiding her spoils behind her back as she rejoined her parents. Harold had Marissa in a tight side hug, clutching the woman as she stared into space. Neither seemed to notice their daughter’s ill-gotten loot.
“How are the others?” I asked.
“Alright, for the time being.” Zoey replied. “They’re mostly just in shock, I think. Even our squad of volunteers just seem to be… waiting, for it to be over.” She leaned in and lowered her voice. “But it won’t last forever. If we don’t do something soon, we could have some problems on our hands.”
“I know, I know.” I put my hands in my face and groaned.
Zoey put a hand on my shoulder. “Hey, it’s okay. We just need to…”
“DALE!” someone shrieked.
I jolted up. Dale was in front of the doors, removing the mop handle.
“I’m done hiding,” he muttered. “You hide if you want, but I’m sick of it.”
“Dale, no,” Zoey commanded. “You don’t know what that thing is capable of.”
“And how do you suggest we find out?” he shot back. “Sit here until it mails us a list? Wait for it to die of boredom, then dissect the corpse?”
“Dale…” Zoey turned to me, eyes pleading for help.
I didn’t say anything for a while. I began to feel the weight of everyone’s eyes on me.
“Do you really think you have a chance?” I finally said.
Zoey turned pale. “Liam!”
“I do,” Dale replied, ignoring her. “This ain’t my first rodeo kid. Not by a long shot.”
“No!” Zoey insisted. “We are not considering this!”
“Says who?” someone else shouted. It was Kathy. “He’s right, you know. We can’t just sit here forever!”
“And what right do you have to stop him?” This time it was Harold, letting go of Marissa to address the group properly. “He’s going of his own accord. This is his decision.”
“No!” Zoey stomped her foot. She was… quivering. I’d never seen her like this before.
“And how are you going to stop me?” Dale challenged. “Lock me in a stall? Tie me up with candy wrappers?”
“Zoey,” I said softly, taking her hands and forcing her to face me. “It’s okay.”
“No,” she said. “Not like Greg. Or Sims. Or Tim. No more.”
“I agree,” I whispered. “No more victims.”
She looked at me, hopefully.
“Dale’s not a victim, though,” I continued. “He has a choice. He knows what he’s walking into. And that gives him the chance the others didn’t. And… and Harold’s right, Zoey. If he wants to go, we have to let him. But if we sit here and shelter him just because of what might happen... then all we are is Archangel.”
Zoey’s face squirmed. Finally, she murmured “all right.”
I walked over to Dale. “We’re putting that mop back as soon as you step outside. I’ll be here, waiting at the doors. If that thing’s too strong, if something goes wrong for any reason, run back here as fast as you can.”
Dale nodded, then handed the mop to me. “I’m going for my truck. If I get to it without meeting that thing, I’ll blare my horn. That’ll be my way of telling you that I’m driving off to go get help. Otherwise, I’ll see you back here.”
“Good luck,” I muttered, holding the door open. Dale stepped out and I shut it quickly, threading the long stick through the handles. He turned back, nodded, and walked off into the mists. After only a few steps, his features faded into a monotone silhouette before it too vanished into the rest of the gray.
The silence became deafening.
Jim cleared his throat. “Maybe it…”
A shrill, inhuman shriek pierced the air, loud enough to make my ears ring. Following it were the sounds of heavy footsteps, excited running towards the center of the path.
Dale gave an incoherent shout, returning the challenge. Unseen, the battle raged, both sides uttering cries of rage and exclamations of pain. Dale would yell, the beast would do it’s strange dog whine. The thing would hiss, and Dale would scream back pain.
Inside, the group added their own commentary. Marissa whimpered. The dog barked. Ada outright bawled, slightly muffled from inside of her father’s shirt. I heard old woman Ruth reciting “the Lord is my shepherd” over and over and over again.
For five minutes, the fighting went on for an eternity.
Then, as suddenly as the whole commotion began, it stopped, as if someone had just turned off a speaker. Calm and silence once more dominated the fog.
I stepped up to the doors, squinting in an attempt to see something.
There was a loud THUNK and I whirled back five feet. Dale was standing there, bloody and torn from head to toe. Fresh cuts were all over his body, torn past the shirt and into his flesh. He breathed rapidly and fixed me with a wild gaze.
“Let me in,” he panted. “Fuck Liam, you were right. It’s too strong. Let me in.”
I startled, then scrambled back up to the doors. Right as I was about to withdraw the mop from the handles, I felt a hand grasp my elbow.
It was Zoey. She looked me in the eyes and whispered “no.”
Dale looked at her, then back to me. “What are you waiting for? I only wounded it. It’ll be back any second!”
“No,” Zoey repeated.
“What do you mean no?” I whispered back.
Her eyes slid off of me and fixed themselves to the figure beyond. “That’s not Dale.”
“What are you doing?” Harold cried from behind me. “Open the doors, damn it!” More voices joined in, the whole crowd of people behind us shouting to let him in.
“How do you know?” I asked Zoey.
Still looking at the person beyond, face pale, she simply breathed “hunch.”
Dale, maybe Dale, whipped back and looked at something in the fog. “Shit, it’s coming back.” He pounded on the doors. “Hurry!”
And I could see a shape in the fog.
But Zoey refused to stop holding my elbow.
I was torn. I didn’t know what to do. I could see the absolute terror in Dale’s face. I could see the dread in Zoey’s face as she stared at maybe Dale. The voices behind me were louder. Ruth was pleading with me. Mr. Yang was calling me a coward.
The fog shape stumbled a bit closer.
I blinked. Stumbled?
“If you won’t do it, I will.” There was another mass at my elbow, this one trying to push me away and get to the mop. It was Mr. Yang. “Get out of…”
A strange, gurgling rattle pierced the noise. Slowly, we each turned to look.
It was Dale. Another Dale. The real Dale. He was stumbling towards us, eyes bulging like a stunned fish reeled out of water and thrown onto land. One hand was clasped tight to his throat. Crimson flooded from behind it, between the fingers, down the hand, staining his front dark with blood. His tongue moved, and he gave another gurgling death rattle.
He took another step, stared at his double with that shocked fish stare, and collapsed dead on the ground.
The first Dale, the fake Dale, watched this display, then turned back to us. His eyes were furious…
...and his teeth were needle thin and sharp.
I let go of the mop and pressed my weight against the doors just in time for the thing to shriek with rage and slam the glass again. Its flesh rippled, like jello being struck with a stick, and patches of Dale reverted back to the angular, scratched albino flesh. The doors buckled. Zoey shoved against the door next to me, Mr. Yang too, I noticed with some surprise, and the three of us held fast as another shove, this one more forceful, hit the doors, flesh now rippling back to that horrible, true form we had seen from the first attack. Each of us stumbled a step backwards with the motion. The mop handle gave a soft crack and bent itself at the slightest angle.
“Harold!” I shouted. “Jim!”
Two more figures joined me at my right and left and, together, the five of us posted up to the doors, digging our heels in and putting every ounce of muscle behind our pose. The creature reeled back, SLAMed again, reeled back, SLAM SLAM SLAMed again, but this time, it held. The doors did not move. The mop handle did not buckle a second time.
More pounding came at the door, but they had diminished in strength. This was less a coordinated assault and more a tantrum motion, vented frustration. There was a snarl, more ferocious and primal than any I had ever heard before, and suddenly the creature was gone, shuffle-hunched back into the fog and back out of our sight.
We held at the door for a few more moments to make sure this wasn’t a ruse, but when two minutes had passed without a new attack, we slowly moved away from the doors. I moved the mop, putting the door’s middle over a new, undamaged section of the handle, then breathed a sigh of relief.
“IT FUCKING SHAPESHIFTS?!”
I turned around. Kathy had her hands in her hair, practically tearing out clumps. Her eyes were almost mad with fear.
“Looks like,” I muttered.
“LOOKS LIKE?!” she demanded. “IT GOES OUT AND KILLS DALE, AND THAT’S ALL YOU CAN FUCKING SAY?! LOOKS LIKE?!”
Zoey winced at the yelling. “Kathy, please calm…”
“DON’T YOU FUCKING DARE TELL ME TO CALM DOWN,” she continued. “NOT NOW. NOT WITH THAT… THING OUTSIDE.”
“So what if it shapeshifts?” Zoey snapped. “Nothing’s changed! We’re still safe in here!”
Harold stared at her in disbelief. Ada was once again crying into his arms. She had been clinging to her mother, but now Marissa lay comatose on the floor, apparently having fainted. “How can you say that?”
“Because it’s true.” Zoey said. “We did a headcount and installed the buddy system for exactly this reason, to make sure it couldn’t get in without us knowing.”
I looked at her dumbly. This was all news to me, but I decided that this wasn’t the time to bring it up.
“And as long as we keep doing that, it’ll still stay out,” Zoey continued. “That’s the only entrance. Even if it manages to sneak in another way, we’ll know, instantly. All we need to do is stay calm and keep an eye on each other.”
“So you knew this would happen?” Harold asked softly.
The room went still.
Zoey shifted. “No, not… necessarily. It’s just… after seeing so many things, it’s good to be prepared for anything.”
Harold nodded, but there was a look in his eyes I didn’t like.
“It’s playing with us.”
A half hour had passed in dead calm. Nobody had moved. A strange, quiet terror had settled into the room and nervous activity that had existed before, Harold calming down Marissa’s nervous shaking, Ada’s constant theft of candy bars, Ruth’s earnest praying, even the dog’s whimpering, had been replaced with nothing. Everyone just sat there.
“Hmm?” Zoey raised her head, seated next to me.
“I said, it’s playing with us,” I repeated.
Zoey shot a look back to the others. “Not so loud.” Then she turned back to me, eyes wide. “Are you sure?”
I nodded. “It shapeshifts, and at the very least, it possesses animal intelligence. And any animal knows how to use the weapons in its arsenal. If it was just a beast, it would have just snuck in with the rest of us while we were still confused, like a snake getting into striking position before it wraps itself around its prey.
“But it didn’t. It rushed us in such an obvious way that we could beat it off. And did you hear what it said when pretending to be Dale? ‘It’s too strong. I only wounded it. It’ll be back any second.’ It could have just said ‘I killed it. Come outside now.’ But it didn’t. It wants us to be scared of it.”
“Because it needs us to be scared? Because it has other goals that we can’t guess at? Because it finds it funny? I don’t know, Zoey. But it does mean one thing.”
I looked back to the mists. “It is intelligent.”
We stared at the fog for a long time, watching it dance suggestions of shapes in front of us.
“Alright,” Zoey said. “So for whatever reason, it wants us to be afraid. How does it make sure that we’re as scared as possible?”
I thought for a moment. “It staggers its attacks. It doesn’t just barrage us; it takes it’s time. Waits for the horror of the last attack to sink in. Then, just as we’re about to shrug it off....”
“Ada?” Harold raised his head like a man waking up in the middle of the night.
An ear-piercing scream shouted from the woman’s bathroom.
“ADA!” he cried, bolting for the bathrooms. The words shocked Marissa out of her stupor as well and the two parents rushed inside.
“Stay here!” Zoey commanded the other four. Then we followed in.
Ada was sitting on the floor of the bathroom, crying. She was covered in tiny glimmering pieces of glass. Larger shards were scattered on the floor around her. Cold air tickled past my face and I looked up to see one of the windows completely smashed through.
“What’s wrong?” Marissa yelled. “Are you okay?” She knelt over her daughter, carefully picking slivers of glass out of her hair.
“I saw the monster!” she wailed. “And he threw something at me and I screamed and I, and I…” Her composure collapsed and she began to ball again.
Something gray appeared in the corner of my eye. I bent over and picked up a large, smooth rock.
“...threw it hard enough to break through the thick glass…” I mumbled to myself.
“What’s going on?” Jim asked, out of breath.
“The thing outside threw a rock through the window,” Zoey answered. “It’s just trying to spook us.”
“How do you know that?” Jim demanded.
“How do you know what?” another voice asked. It was Ruth, pushing her walker through the entryway.
“The thing outside broke a window. It’s trying to get in!” Jim shouted.
“It is not trying to get in!” Zoey yelled, looking flustered. “That window is too small for it to get through.”
“But it shapeshifts!” he insisted. “What if… what if it could turn into a-a-a snake, or something?!” His eyes went wide. “What if it’s inside right now? I’m going to check the other bathrooms!” he cried, running out of the room.
“Wait!” I cried, reaching after him. “Don’t go-”
“What’s going on?” Kathy asked, pushing through and preventing me from following.
“The thing outside threw a rock through the window,” Zoey said with a sigh. “It scared Ada pretty bad.”
“Are you alright pumpkin?” Harold asked, cradling Ada in a gentle hug. “Are you hurt?”
Ada sniffled and shook her head. Harold grabbed onto her and lifted her off the floor.
“Why?” Kathy asked.
“You said it was trying to scare us?” Harold asked me. His gaze was angry, and somehow it felt like that anger was directed at me.
“We think it might be playing with us,” Zoey said. “Like a cat.”
Ada whimpered and clutched her father tighter.
“But… why?” Kathy said. “What’s the point…”
“Hang on,” I interrupted. “Where’s Mr. Yang?”
“Still sitting on one of the benches,” Kathy replied. “Don’t worry, Mom’s with him.”
I stopped, then turned slowly over to Ruth, still standing in the corner of the room.
The realization hit Zoey at the same time. “Liam…”
There was another shriek, and a dog’s whine of pain.
I pushed myself past Kathy, into the large room. Jim had backed up into the corner, pale white, eyes bulging at something in the center of the room, two large, bloody masses with chunks of flesh ripped out, what remained of clothes and fur soaked with blood, some areas colored with hints of pink and even white where enough had been ripped out to see the bone underneath…
Mr. Yang was dead.
And if we couldn’t figure out how to get out of here soon, we would be too.
Zoey managed to keep everyone distracted long enough for me to find a tarp in one of the janitor’s closets and cover the bodies with it. There was also some kind of blue baby-powder-like substance in a jug that proclaimed itself to be “SpillMagic!”, so I used that on the pools of blood. It managed to soak up a good amount, but even after dumping the whole jug out, the sheer amount of it overpowered the drenched clumps and leaked through to the floor beyond.
There was also a pool of vomit near where Jim had been standing. I took out one of the mops and started to clean it up, but Jim, blushing, insisted that he do it himself.
“Alright, if you want,” I said. “But don’t feel bad. Like I said, we’re just more used to it, is all.”
Jim took the mop, but he wasn’t able to meet my eyes and something told me that was about more than just the mess.
Once it was finished, I signaled to Zoey and she let them back into the common area. Everyone took a few steps in, then just stared dumbly at the big tarp in the center.
“I, uh…” Zoey mumbled. “I don’t think we can really… move him.”
No one responded.
“We need to cover that hole,” I announced, heading towards the women's restrooms. “Jim, can you…”
Something grabbed my shoulder. I stopped.
It was Harold. “We need to do something about this.”
“What… what do you mean?” Zoey asked nervously.
“I mean two people have died and we’re no closer to getting out than when this all started,” he said.
“What the hell do you think we’ve been trying to do?” I shot back.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Why don’t you tell me?”
There was a pause.
I narrowed my eyes “What are you talking about?”
“I’ve been making this trip with my family for five years,” he said, enunciating each word clearly. “I’ve stopped at this rest stop every single time. Not once has this happened before. Then this time around, you two show up, talking about it and ordering us around and somehow, I can’t help but feel like the two are related.”
“You don’t really think that we had something to do with this?” Zoey asked. “We want to get out of here as much as all of-”
“Jim,” Harold interrupted. “Why don’t you tell the others what you overheard them saying?”
Jim shuffled his feet. “Harold, listen, they’ve got a…”
“Tell them,” he commanded.
Jim sighed. “When they were talking, I heard Zoey say, ‘When you say ‘us’, do you mean everyone in here... or do you mean us us?’”
I could feel the tension residing in the silence increase.
Harold stared at me.
“Be very careful with what you suggest next,” I warned.
“I think that this thing might be after only you two,” he replied, not breaking eye contact. “And I think that if we give it what it wants, it might leave the rest of us alone.”
“You can’t be serious!” Zoey exclaimed.
“Why not?” Kathy asked, joining in. “You did say that you’ve dealt with this thing before.”
“That is not what we said,” Zoey replied, a growl of frustration in her voice.
“Then why the head count?” Kathy replied. “Why the buddy system? Why the insistence on guarding the entryway?”
“Those are just common-sense precautions,” I protested.
“For being attacked by monsters?!”
“C’mon guys,” Jim spoke up. “Even if that thing is after them, they’re still the ones who stopped it from getting in. They’re still on our side!”
“Unless they’re using us,” Marissa said. Some strange realization was in her eyes. “Unless they knew it was coming, and they wanted to make sure that there were other people between it and them, give them time to get away.”
I forced myself to swallow back some of my anger. “You can’t be serious.”
“Why not?” Harold challenged. “You two have taken control of this situation from the start, deciding what we would and wouldn’t do. And every time something happens, you two are completely safe. It’s someone else who gets hurt, right?”
“Not like Greg,” Marissa continued. Panic was descending on her face. “You said ‘not like Greg. Or Sims. No more…’ How many times have you done this?!”
Zoey was beginning to look scared now. “No, that’s not what…”
“Maybe it’s time for you two to face it instead,” Kathy said.
“No.” Ruth grabbed Kathy’s arm. “You can’t be considering this, child.”
“I am,” Kathy insisted. “If they brought that thing here with them, then they deserve to deal with it themselves. I’m not going to sit here and wait to see if it kills you instead, Mom.”
“Or my wife.” Harold added. “Or my daughter.”
The air turned deathly quiet again.
“Listen,” Zoey tried. Her voice was wavering. “I think we all might have gotten a little heated. How about we…”
“How about we vote?” Harold interrupted. “How about we decide as a group for once instead of letting you decide for us?”
“Then I vote no!” Jim shouted before I could say anything. “They’re on our side, damn it!”
“You can tell that to Dale and Yang,” Kathy replied. “I’m voting yes too.”
“Same here,” Marissa breathed.
The group turned to Ruth.
“Ruth…” Zoey whispered.
Ruth turned to Zoey, then hung her head. “Do it.”
Immediately, strong arms wrapped themselves around me and lifted me from the ground and peddled me backwards. “Hey!” I shouted. “Let go of me!”
“Liam!” Zoey cried, but suddenly Kathy was there, hooking her arms around Zoey’s and dragging her backwards.
I struggled harder. “Don’t you fucking…”
“The closets!” Harold yelled. He spun me around to face the janitorial closet doorway, still open from me rifling through to get supplies. A hearty shove hit my backside and I tumbled forward into the darkened space. My foot caught on something on the way in and I fell face first onto the ground, dazed in pain and blind to my surroundings.
The door SLAMed behind me, jarring me back to life. “Oh no you don’t,” I growled and tackled the doorway. It jostled a bit, but something on the other side kept it held. Through the door, I could hear Zoey shouting something, followed by a softer but identical slam.
“Let us out!” I yelled. I put my shoulder to the door and shoved again. Something shoved back.
“Get a bench!” Harold yelled. Scraping and dragging sounds echoed from beyond the door, followed by a clatter clatter I could feel through the surface. I grimaced and shoved again, but this time, the door refused to budge. I did it again, and succeeded only in bruising my shoulder, the doorway now jammed completely shut. I stood for a moment, panting, before placing my ear to the surface and listening.
“Now what?” Kathy asked.
“We leave them in there until it comes back,” Harold said. “Once it does, we talk to it. Tell them that we have them, and it can have them if it just leaves us alone. Then we give them to it.”
And far off in the distance, an inhuman howl screamed through the fog.
As soon as I got my eyes adjusted to the dark, I began to scrounge around the closet, attempting to plot an escape.
No idea was too small. I found a screwdriver and tried to use it to unscrew the hinges from the door before realizing that they were bolted in, somehow, and that wasn’t going to work. Then I tried to use the flathead to pry off the bolt inside of the hinge. No luck there. The pliers didn’t help either. I threw those away and began looking for something else.
And what do you think you’re going to find? I chided myself. Industrial strength acid? A portable battering ram? Maybe there’s a spoon in here you can use to dig your way out, ‘Great Escape’ style.
I slumped onto a wall and fell into a sitting position. Who was I kidding? This wasn’t a problem I could think my way out of. All I’d done was think ever since we’d gotten trapped in this damned rest stop, and all I had to show for it were two dead bodies.
Maybe they’re right, I thought to myself. After all, you never wrote off the possibility that this thing was here because of Leshy the bunny man. Maybe all it wants is you, and it’ll just go away once it gets you.
And if that was the case, and it spent all this time screwing around with everyone just for kicks, what was it going to do once it got us?
I stood up and began to rummage around once more.
I stopped and listened. I was about to write it off as my imagination when it came again.
I sneaked over to the door and put my ear to it.
“Liam,” Jim’s voice whispered, “Are you there?”
I sighed in relief. “Yes. What’s going on?”
“Sun went down,” he said. “Everyone’s real exhausted, so we decided to sleep in shifts. It’s my shift now, and everyone else is asleep. At least…” he paused, “I think they’re asleep.”
“What did they do with Zoey?” I asked.
“She’s in the other closet. They’re going to offer both of you up to that creature when it comes back.”
“We need to deal with it before then,” I said.
I sighed and closed my eyes. “Can you get me and Zoey out before the others wake up?”
“Maybe, but… what are you going to do?”
“We’ll need to try and get to the RV. Drive away, see if we can get help.”
“Isn’t that dangerous with the thing still outside?”
“Maybe, but… we don’t have any other choices right now.”
“I see.” He went quiet for a while. “Alright, stand back. I’m gonna open the door now.”
I took a few steps back as some shuffling and banging came from the other side, each noise as loud as a gunshot. Then there was a click and a swish and Jim was there, a fuzzy shadow against the brightness of the fluorescent lights behind him.
“Thanks,” I said, shielding my eyes. “Now c’mon, we need to go get Zoey.”
Jim didn’t move.
He took a step forward and quietly clicked the door back shut.
“Jim, what are you…”
With impossible speed Jim whipped his arms forward. A cloth of some kind wrapped itself around my head, forcing into my mouth and spinning me backwards in the same smooth motion. He yanked back and I was knocked off balance, falling back to lean on Jim.
“Now thiss is my favorite part,” Jim hissed, and suddenly his voice didn’t sound like Jim anymore. Instead, it got raspier, more savage. “The part where they realize what’ss going on jussst in time to die.”
A long slimy worm-like appendage ran itself over my face. “Mmm, and you already tassste sssso good.”
I struggled, trying to throw him off. I felt his leg wrap around my own, completely and unnaturally spiraled around it as if the limb had five separate joints in it. The other one did the same and he took a few steps, making me follow in tow like some kind of grizzly Halloween costume.
“You ever had human, Liam?” it taunted me. “No, I sssuposse you haven’t. Let me asssure you, you’re very deliciousss. It’sss why most of my kind enjoy you sssso much, but if you take the time to season them correctly, ah! Adrenaline makess them tasste so much sssweeter. Cortissol givesss it that rich, buttery flavor. And if you really take your time, force them to exert themsselvesss, really bathe their musscless in lactic acidsssss…”
I tried to grasp in air to scream, but the cloth pushed my tongue back through into my throat, blocking it from the oxygen outside. My muscles began to give a deep, exhaustive ache. My lungs burned.
“Othersss tell me I try too hard,” it continued. “That ssetting up these elaborate sscenarioss, playing with my food until they’re asss sscared asss possible before going in for the kill isss too much work. I should jusst… grab ‘em by ssurprisse, like the otherss do. But if they could jussst have one… bite from uss masster chefss…”
Us? The word shot through my mind with a wild ferocity. I figured that the thing had snuck back in and killed Jim, stolen his face to get to me.... but Jim had been the only one outside of the group when Yang was killed… and the headcount…
Nine, including us, I had said. But the family of three, plus the two women, plus Zoey and I, plus Yang and Dale and Jim…
That equaled ten.
He jerked my head back and his face filled my vision. He still looked like Jim, whoever the hell poor Jim had been before this, but in the dim light of the closet I could see the dull white of hundreds of needle-thin teeth and the deep red of his long, thin tongue. And now his eyes had reverted back to those large, circular oil drops, squinted down to me in sadistic delight…
He saw something on my face, and that dangerous smile went wider.
“Ah, and now he realizesss.” It chuckled. “Yesss, the mosst complex recipiess require two, at leassst. It’sss alwaysss a little rissky sspliting up, ssneaking in while your partner ssstayss outsside to do the prep work, but as alwayss, worth it. Esspecially now.”
He twirled me around so that my head was forced forwards again. With my legs still immobilized from the creature’s impossible straddle, I swung my arms out, elbowing it in the ribs and hips and any area I could reach.
If it felt it, it didn’t show it.
“I have to ssssay, finding ssomeone on thiss ssside of the Veneer wass an unexpected delight. Your attemptss at sstability, the paranoia you fosstered… mmph.” He smacked his lips. “We’ll eat like kingsss, thankss to you two.”
My movements began to slow. My vision began to black out. I looked back up, and I was just able to see the blurred, swimming form of a bleach bottle perched dangerously close to the edge.
I grit my teeth and shoved.
The Jim-thing snickered and rolled with it, content to let such a weak escape attempt simply be instead of expending energy trying to cancel it out. Which was what I was hoping for. Because instead of propelling me backwards in an attempt to disengage myself, it instead forced both of us into the wall, rattling the shelf above and causing the bottle to slip off…
...and land on our heads, drenching us with the contents.
Bleach, especially pure, industrial cleaning bleach used in places like these, is a pretty powerful chemical. Strong enough to melt skin, if you let it. So I was prepared for the intense stinging that followed, a sensation that felt like getting whipped with a long strap of leather with tiny, pointed tacks nailed along its length. I mentally braced myself, trying to force my mind to rally against it, planning to use this moment of distraction to break free and get away.
What I wasn’t prepared for was it’s reaction to the chemical.
It wailed. No, it screamed. The sound that came out of its mouth was so loud and high pitched that it resembled a train whistle more than anything else. It stumbled off me, backing into the door and slamming it open, and in the bright light it screamed again.
A wave of nausea washed over me as the flash of light combined with the acres of pain on my skin. I closed my eyes, confused shouting and another mechanical scream filling my ears. I let them take over my senses, become my world, anchor me, until I had enough will to open my eyes and look again.
The thing was still in a terrified panic. Some sections of its skin seemed to have retained their Jim shape, the skin color, the human details, but others were slothing off of it in liquid masses, like globs of melted pudding, revealing a pale skin now bright rash-red covering angular bones underneath, the monster inside. It back peddled, slipped on a piece of itself, fell to the ground, raised a hand with two regular fingers, three long curling sloth claw appendages on it, stared at it, and screamed again.
And just like that, my pain was replaced with rage.
My hand grabbed a sturdy wooden broom handle and I flew out of the closet. I stood over it and swung down, striking it with all my might. It screamed. I swung again. It kept screaming. I kept swinging. At some point, the broom handle broke, but it screamed and I swung and it screamed and I swung and I swung and I swung until I realized that no more sound was coming from it. The body wasn’t moving.
It was dead.
I killed it.
I rolled over onto the floor, and vomited.
“I’m sorry,” Harold told me as I moved over to the other janitor closet.
I ignored him.
“I didn’t know what else to…”
I shoved the long bench propped up against the janitor closet door, jamming it shut. It fell to the ground with a BANG that made everyone else wince.
I swung open the door, revealing a figure crouched in the corner, shielding her face with one hand and wielding a screwdriver in the other.
“Come get some you…” Zoey growled. Then her eyes went wide. “Liam? What the hell happened? Are you alright?”
“Thing… tried to…” I didn’t have enough strength to say more, so I just gestured over to the half-melted body on the floor.
“That… Jim…” Zoey bit her lip. “Is it… dead?”
“Is it over then?” I turned around to see Kathy, sheepishly standing behind us. “Can we go home now?”
“No,” I gasped, then swallowed. “The one outside is still there. There were two, working together.”
Kathy gave a bit of a bitter laugh. “So after all that, we’re no closer to getting out.”
“No,” I said. “I know how to get rid of it. Zoey, grab that boxcutter and follow me.”
Two minutes later, Zoey and I were standing outside in the cold fog, the rest of the group huddled behind the glass doors, watching.
“Are you sure about this Liam?” Zoey asked.
“You should have seen it Zoey. The terror… I don’t think it was used to being the one scared.” I gripped the object in my hand tighter and let grim satisfaction flow through me. “This will work. Trust me.”
There was a strange scraping patter. A silhouette, hunched over, made its way over to us in the fog, stepping slowly. It’s features materialized. Leech mouth. Needle teeth. Worm tongue. Bone white skin and glass angles.
It grinned at us.
I threw the thing behind my back at. The strange pale sphere bounced once, rolled, and came to stop at the creature’s feet.
It paused, then gently prodded it with its foot.
The strangled, dead face of the Jim-thing stared back at it.
It jumped back from the head.
I smirked. “Guess you’re not used to playing this role. Do you need some tips?”
The shocked black eyes settled on me.
“This is the part where you run.”
It hesitated, stared back down to the head at its feet, then bolted into the fog. A few minutes later, the mist cleared, and Zoey and I were left standing in the bright, cheerful Florida sun.
Zoey called the cops, and since she handled the call, she also made sure that an ambulance was called to take care of my chemical burns. Everyone was dragged off to a different area outside so that they could give their statement to an officer while a small herd of forensic guys combed the rest area, putting things in bags and taping other things off.
While I was being fussed over by two paramedics, one of the officers walked over to me and whistled. “That’s one hell of a rash, Foster.”
I didn’t even try to act surprised at the fact that he knew my name without me telling it to him. Instead, I just sighed and asked, “can you do me a favor?”
“Depends on the favor,” he replied.
“Can you forgo the whole spooky men-in-black, ‘you didn’t see anything’ routine with the others? These people have been through enough as it is.”
He laughed. “We don’t need to. Tonight, the news is going to air a story on two very disturbed men going around killing people while dressed in rubber suits. People will want to talk to the survivors, people always want to talk, and some might try to fight back and say ‘no, that was no rubber suit. That was real.’ But after getting so many funny looks, they’ll swallow their pride and fib and agree that yes, it was just a rubber suit. A very convincing rubber suit. Whatever’ll get them out of their hair fastest. After all, most of them will just want the whole thing to be over with.
“And a year later, five years later, a decade after when some shrink wants to write a book, they’ll repeat the story again, and they’ll fib again to get it over with, and with enough retellings, their memory will get fuzzy, and soon they will believe that it was just a rubber suit and hey, don’t they remember seeing that glint of silver when it turned around? That was the zipper, wasn’t it?”
He lit a cigarette, took a long inhale, then looked at the paramedics. “He clean, boys?”
“Nothing but the bleach burns,” one replied. He handed me a roll of gauze. “Keep the skin clean and wrapped, change the bandages every day. Otherwise, Foster, it’s just gotta heal over time.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled, taking the gauze. I glanced to the supposed officer. “I don’t suppose I get to find out what those things were, do I?”
He glared at me. “Don’t push your luck, kid. The Veneer exists for a reason.” And with that, he motioned to the medics and walked away, leaving me alone.
“Yeah, the Veneer,” I mumbled to myself, turning my camcorder around in my hands. The same one that hides Worlds of Wonder, and the Hotel California, and deadly spell books, and Wonderland Control Gears, and wishing rocks, and now shapeshifting cannibals. The one that kills people like Greg and Sims and Tim and Dale and Yang.
I opened the camera up, showcasing the recorded footage on the tiny screen. “We’ll just have to do something about that, won’t we?”
p.s.- sorry for the late publish after promising it yesterday. Life had other ideas.