Dares laid un-blanketed under his canopy of painted cosmos. His body was as still as one dead, but his eyes were wide and lucid, with a far-off look about them. He was peering into the illusionary depths of his ceiling, stargazing as he had when he was a child. The north star shone brightly tonight, shimmering and framed by a trail of astral vapor. Mars was bright tonight too, glowing deep red like an all-seeing eye. Subtly, he could make out the faint swirl of the Milky Way’s arms, extending outward into the void and framed by a few lonely stars.
Laying still and quiet, so quiet he could feel his own heartbeat and hear the blood rushing in his ears, Dares felt the room begin to turn. It was a low, faint tremor, but one that conjured the heart-singing up-and-down of the carousel. Dares let himself fall deeper into this spinning, rocking sensation, let himself spiral down into the detached place where his walls fell away, and there was only empty space.
He was adrift now among the stars. His eyes teared at the beauty of twin comets streaking across the heavens, falling away to the earth below. Here, every second was an eternity in a celestial realm unending. Dares drifted deeper, slipping into a sleep-like state.
But something pulled him out of his doze as heavy droplets of freezing rain began to fall onto him. He opened his eyes and he was no longer in his bed orbiting earth. He was completely naked, suspended in the air with his arms splayed out to either side of him and his feet pinned together, as if affixed to an invisible cross. The downpour sounded like the crashing of trash can lids against each other, a sound many times multiplied by the prominent besiege of thunder and lightning that cast a shaft of light down into the alleyway where Dares hung crucified.
What’s going on? Dares whimpered, rain plastering his hair to his paling forehead. The thought echoed, coming from within, and from without together at once.
His vision reflected in a puddle forming in the dirty street, where a ripple announced the presence of some unearthly thing. The puddle shimmered and began to glow with furtive purple luminescence. Out of the glowing reflection, an inky black thing slowly emerged, rising out of the puddle as if pushed from some dark womb.
Its head was shaped like some conical jester’s hat, ending in crooked rabbit’s ears or feelers that chittered and vibrated, tasting the air around the thing. It was a hunched, impossibly thin thing with bony protrusions and an emaciated look as the hint of a brittle spine pushed against its silken black skin. It had dangling, gangly arms that hung on unhinged double-joints and met sloped, dislocated shoulder sockets. It’s long, whispery fingers ended in curling crescent talons that gleamed in the light. It stood on compressed, spring-loaded flea’s legs ending in what may have been thick boots, except they connected seamlessly to the ankles and were the same smooth black as the rest of it.
The creature was black entirely, except those talons, which Dares realized were crimson, and its eyes, or, impressions of eyes, which were pale and shown with deadlight. The empty sockets projected grey dusk and fog the same way a lighthouse projected a solid beam of light for miles and miles out over the sea. It had no mouth, just a depression where its mouth should have been. There, the black skin stretched over that vestigial jaw fluttered, drawn in and blown out as the thing seemed to take long, rattling, and emphysemic breaths that made its sickly chest cave in as if the ribs cracked each time and reformed on the exhale. The way the skin where its mouth should have been puffed in and out, it almost resembled a condemned man breathing through the black mask pulled over his face.
The creature radiated a profound sense of wrongness that repelled every cell in Dares’ body. He saw that, even though it had no mouth, faint black vapors trailed away from its face with every sickening breath that it shouldn’t have even been able to take. Its head swiveled on a twisted neck like an owl, those deadlight eyes scanning its surroundings. It seemed unfazed by the rain, which seemed to pass right through it. The thing gave no indication of feeling cold or discomfort, though looking at it it seemed a twisted abomination that must be in constant agony simply by existing.
It wasn’t cold, or in pain. It was cold, and it was pain. It was a thing that should not be.
The chilling rain pouring down on Dares was hot as the sun next to the shadowy vermin, which radiated a cold many factors below absolute zero. The air bent around it, distorted and sapped of color. Its feelers clicked together. Its head swiveled to the right and those twilight eyes washed over Dares.
It sees me. Dares shuddered. Every instinct in his body begged him to move and run away as far and as quickly as possible, but he was trapped, frozen in place and time.
The thing made a sound that was equal parts a squeal, a moan, and an amalgamation of every filthy slur in the collective vocabulary of all languages as it lurched forward. The smell of decaying flesh, of mold and dry-rot, of freezer-burn, of vomit and of feces clung to the thing as surely as its skin as it shambled towards its quarry. As horrible as looking at and smelling it were, the aspect of the creature that challenged Dares’ sanity was the way it moved. The thing didn’t seem to truly “touch” the ground, only glide over it like an immaterial shadow. But at the same time, its shifting textures and the sounds of faint crunching and snapping within painted a picture of a billowing black bag of discarded chicken bones that had somehow assembled itself into an animate form and was blowing forward in a violent, unnatural wind.
As it drew nearer, Dares felt faint and horribly nauseated. Hot bile welled up at the back of his constricting throat, choked for air in the stink of the thing, suffocating. The street lamps illuminating its path went out one by one as it squelched eagerly forward. Through his rising terror, Dares noticed that the street lamps weren’t breaking, the light was literally being sucked out of them, drawn into the thing’s sickening being and absorbed. When the last light was eaten, the only color left to contrast the dark was that pair of eyes, like windows into an empty, barren world. Dares sensed, rather than felt, its bony, steak-knife claws reaching forward to touch him.
I’m going to die. he realized numbly. The capacity for fear seemed to have been drained out of him, along with everything else, leaving only that grim knowledge. He closed his eyes and waited for the thing to jam its hand through his chest. He measured his remaining life in freezing breaths. After four or five had passed, he realized he still drew breath at all. Slowly, he opened his eyes. The thing could not seem to locate him. Its eyes blinked slowly, its face mere inches from Dares’ own. Its feelers clicked together in what could have been confusion.
Can it not see me?
The creature cocked its head so far on its neck, Dares heard a sickening snap. It waited there a few moments longer, as if waiting for Dares to slip up. When nothing happened, it reluctantly ambled off.
Dares should have felt immense relief. Instead, he felt something unspeakably horrible was about to happen. To answer that dread, the harsh sound of hateful and frightened barking flew down the alleyway. Dares was able to turn his head in the direction of the noise with supreme effort, and saw an emaciated and filthy rottweiler, its haunches raised, baring its fearsome teeth and growling a warning at the creature.
The thing was instantly atop the dog. “Blindingly fast” did not illustrate the creature’s speed. Dares heard the dog yelp before he saw the thing move. It left a trail of afterimages in its wake, and it seemed the air and physical dimensions in its way rippled as they were displaced by its form. Dares slammed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth against the agonizing sound of the canine’s death throes. When its pleading yelps at last tapered off to a faint whine and then silence, the only noise that was left was the whistling of air, as if it were being sucked from the dog and into the creature with those rattling breaths... the whistling, and the rain.
Dares slowly opened his eyes. The thing was there, standing over the place the dog had been. With its eyes turned away from him, Dares could only make out its shape by the way its stygian hue stood out even in contrast to the darkness around it. There was no trace of the dog. Something about the creature had changed. At first, it was so slight, Dares couldn’t put his finger on what exactly was different. But, as the thing rose out of its crouch to its full height, it hit him.
Its bigger. Just a little bit.
The thing turned out toward the street again and froze. Dares tried to twist his body in the air to see whatever the thing was looking at. For a brief moment, he glimpsed another figure standing under the weeping clouds. It was too dark to make out much, but Dares’ attention was drawn to a pair of slanted, ocean-blue eyes set in a pale alabaster face, framed by a waterfall of drenched raven hair. The rich smell of coffee overpowered the zombie odor of the beast, and an ephemeral voice whispered,
Go back to sleep.
Whether it was addressed to the monster or to Dares himself, he didn’t know. He felt full and heavy, and airy and light at the same time, and slowly fell down through the night. His hands were gripping either post of his bed, soaked with the rain. He stared up as the heavens showered down on him.
There’s the North Star. he murmured serenely. As he held his gaze up to the sky, it began to shift and fade, the depth shallowing until the boundless reaches were a single, solid plane, and the twinkling stars fizzled to a dull, dying glow. Dares heard the rush of water flooding through the street gutters slow and die out as the rain finally ceased its descent.
Dares laid there in his rain-drenched pajamas, clinging to his body like thin wet plastic wrap, and felt the flooded mattress form around his body as it sunk slightly in as if into marshland.
I… I’m in bed. Am I paralyzed?
Dares concentrated great effort into his feet, which felt detached from his body. In fact, his entire body felt numb and useless. He strained hard, feeling blood vessels in his brain begin to bulge as he struggled to move his body at all.
Focus. Deep breaths. Relax and let it come naturally.
Dares closed his eyes and slowed his breathing, trying to concentrate his entire being on simply feeling his chest rise and fall. Deep breaths. In, and out. In, and out. Gradually, feeling came back into his toes. He wriggled them, testing the muscles and tendons individually. His body’s electric impulses were communicating strenuously with his mind, but the feedback was coming through, and that was the important part. From the toes, the feeling of life spread itself through his feet, which began to burn with a near-unbearable sensation of pins and needles so that Dares almost wished they were still numb. The sensations, small and large, snaked their way through his core, into his shoulders, down the length of his arms, and at last into his fingertips.
Dares felt his neck loosen, and allowed his head to turn to his side, where he saw his hands locked onto the posts so tightly that the knuckles were white. When the energy in his hands was flowing freely again, he released that grip with immense relief. Dares jumped onto his chance to sit bolt upright in bed, as if he would be struck down with paralysis again were he to wait another moment. He studied his own pale hands as if he had never seen them before, and obsessively opened and closed them, relishing the feeling of his nails and fingertips pushing into the smooth skin of his palms.
The smell of coffee still hung over his room. Dares slid himself out of his waterlogged bed, as if one under a spell.
It was a hot night and these pajamas are heavy. I just sweat too much, that’s all. he explained to himself. He had to believe that.
Something dropped onto his head. Dares looked up, startled, and saw a steady drip of water leaking from a crack in his ceiling.
That crack wasn’t there before, was it? Maybe it could have been, the way my ceiling is painted would make it hard to tell.
Dares’ was a ground-level apartment, with another unit directly above his own. He knew from the complex layout pamphlet he had picked up before moving in that the rooms were symmetrical with each other, so there was no way the water was coming from some kind of defect in his upstairs neighbor’s bathroom. Dares forgot about it when he noticed a dull ache had settled into his skull.
Whatever. I’ll seal the crack later. Dares promised himself. A gentle breeze entered the room and parted his bangs. He looked in the direction of the window, cracked open ever so slightly. Was that window open last night?
Of course it was. It was a hot night, so I opened it to let in some cool fresh air.
A-Achoo!... Dares wiped his nose. Out of the corner of his eye, a moth was still on his window ledge. Its wings fluttered softly, and it vanished out the window on the breeze.