by C. L. Kelley
I knew that if I remained passive, they would find some way to get to me. I was tempted to beg off cleaning the bathroom, but monitoring the transformation of the stall was my only hope of keeping tabs on what was going on and what they might do next.
The graffiti now covered almost every available inch of wall: flash shots of every horrible impulse that ever slithered across the human mind, every nightmare that haunted the darkness. And yet, it was as if those illustrations were now just trying to taunt me. I knew now that the real terror lay in those cryptic messages and phone numbers. The rest was diversion.
Toward the end of July, I decided, against all fear and rational thought, to go directly to the source. I wanted to see the hidden thing for myself, to confront it so that it could see that it didn’t have me on the run. I would go to the store at night, after closing and before the stocking.
I knew I had a window of a couple of hours, which would be plenty of time for whatever was going to happen. I was only dimly concerned that these actions might cause me to be seriously hurt, or even killed. I had to discover the face of this thing that was driving me crazy.
The next time I worked the shift before closing, I unlatched the loading door at the back of the stockroom. This kind of sliding door also could be locked from the outside, so I could fasten it when I left. If I left, a voice in the back of my mind taunted, but I ignored such logic.
At midnight, just as when I had made the phone call, I drove back to the store, circling the car around to the back. The rear of the store was surrounded by a small grove of trees, which would hide me from surrounding eyes, though the store wasn’t exactly in a residential area in the first place.
Stepping out of the car, I grabbed the long, heavy flashlight I’d brought with me. At least its metal body could double as a truncheon if I ran into something nasty, though I was left thinking that I should have brought a more formidable means of defense.
Even this meager darkness seemed oppressive to me, and I sensed things in that bunch of trees watching me, seeing if I would really go through with this. I was eager to escape this feeling of exposure, so I climbed the stairs to the loading door and pulled it up a couple of feet. Lying on my back, I then rolled underneath into the store.
As soon as I stood up, I switched on the flashlight. Its beam shot ahead, letting me see stacks of boxes and metal shelving, a dingy mop and broom stacked against the corner of a grimy, gray-green wall. Though I could see where I was going, and I knew the layout of the store, I felt the darkness closing in, eating at my light. And I immediately felt that whatever I needed to see — or didn’t need to see, depending on your point of view — was just out of the reach of the flashlight beam.
I navigated through the storeroom, my light glinting off packages still wrapped in cellophane from shipping, looking like spun cobwebs. After moving through the maze, I emerged out of the double doors into the store itself. I was already afraid enough just being there at all, but even with this fear, I was surprised at how disarming I found seeing the store like this. Here were all the familiar shelves, liters of soda bottles, boxes of cereal, a stack of barbecue grilling equipment, all frozen in the darkness and silence. It was like diving into one of those drowned cities, floating by sunken buildings wrapped in weeds, seeing schools of fish swimming through the muddy cavities of parlors.
I paused, my heart pounding, just managing not to make my hands shake, and listened, sweeping the beam across the store. The light didn’t reach the far end of the store near the floral department, where for a moment I thought I saw something moving among the clusters of carnations and roses, their bright colors muted by the dimness. I managed to convince myself that it was only a trick of light, and I started to make my way cautiously to the other end of the store, where the restrooms were.
By chance I saw that I was headed down the housewares aisle, and I paused to pluck up a claw hammer from its peg. It wasn’t a heavy weapon, but better than the flashlight. Hammer raised slightly, I continued down the aisle. I was getting close to the end when I thought I heard a noise. Stopping, trying to hold my ragged breath, I listened again more closely to the steady sound. Now there was no mistaking what it was. The faucets in the bathroom were running.
I froze, unsure of whether to turn and run. After all, wasn’t this what I had come for? What did I think was going to happen? With tremendous effort I took another step forward just as the faucets stopped running and the door to the restrooms creaked open.
From my position I was close enough to hear but still couldn’t directly see the door. I could, however, hear the slow, clicking footsteps that went for a few paces, then stopped. I was quickly aware that there was a certain scent in the air that I couldn’t identify — something acrid but not quite chemical.
Then a voice sounded out in the silence, softly spoken, almost a whisper, though it reached me clearly. The voice was androgynous and without accent, though the cadence of its speech was off.
“Have you come to see my Art?” it asked, as the footsteps began again. “I could show you places — places where it’s real. Maybe you could end up on the wall.”
The frozen panic immobilizing me broke, and I turned and ran toward the back of the store, harder than I had ever run in my life. The flashlight and hammer swung crazily in my hands, and the beam bobbed aimlessly in front of me, illuminating nothing. The footsteps behind me picked up into a run, too, but I dared not look back.
I slammed into the swinging double doors to the storeroom, throwing them open, dashing around the walls of boxes toward the loading door, which was still mercifully open. My pursuer gained on me with every step, and I knew that any minute, hands — or whatever the person from the bathroom probably called hands — would grab onto me. What if the person behind me was the thing that had oozed out of the stall in my nightmare?
The loading door was upon me now, and with an agility unknown to me, I dropped and rolled through the crack. The hammer spun out of my hand, but I still held the flashlight. Luckily, I managed to halt my momentum so I didn’t roll off the small platform on the other side, and I turned to yank the handle of the door down to close it. Something was reaching through, trying to seize me, and I didn’t even stop to see what it looked like.
I brought the flashlight down and connected with the shape in the dim light, sending a jolt through my arm and generating a grunt from the other side of the door, though I couldn’t say if it was from pain or surprise. Still, the clutching shape withdrew, and I closed the door, slamming the lock into place.
Tearing into the car, I cranked it up and roared away from the store, glancing in my rear view mirror this time, and going as fast as I dared through the cemetery-still night.
By the time I reached home, I had managed to calm down enough to pull quietly back into the driveway with my headlights off. I also had the presence of mind to walk a few feet away from the car before I threw up. After finishing I let myself back in, hoping that my parents were still asleep. I finally made it to my room after replacing the flashlight, which was surprisingly undamaged.
It wasn’t until I collapsed into my bed that the procedural numbness of getting back into the house wore off, and the full impact of what I had just gone through hit me. I thought of that voice again, wanting to show me where it all came from. I tried and tried to push it away, but I couldn’t.
I knew then that the voice would always be with me, and I had no one but myself to blame. I wanted to solve the mystery, wanted to peer into the dark corner of my existence, only to find not a solid wall but an abyss.
Somehow I fell asleep and didn’t wake up for fourteen hours, when my mother knocked on the door and asked me if I planned on sleeping through dinner, too.
“I feel sick,” I managed to mumble, which was an excuse then, but which turned out to be true. I really did get sick, and by that evening I was throwing up and had a 103-degree fever. My parents were on the verge of taking me to the hospital when it broke, and I slept again from another eleven hours.
I missed work twice before I fully recovered two days later, but I was beyond caring. I couldn’t bear to think about seeing that bathroom stall again, seeing what messages awaited me after that night, what revelations slithered across the walls in delicate ink. I never did return to work, despite my parents’ protestations. And maybe that was truce enough, because the phone calls stopped, and I received no more nightly visitors.
I knew in my heart, though, that there could be no such thing as a truce. I knew it was all still going on out there somewhere, even if I didn’t know about it directly. I knew that every time I saw some scrawled message on a wall, it would be fecund with hidden meaning. It would speak to me of a thousand things that happened just out of sight, speak to me of windowless basements and drawn curtains and back alleys. I would live with the knowledge of how easy it was one day to turn a wrong corner and find all the things that had lurked at the edge of your perception, there, waiting for you.
Copyright © 2010 by C. L. Kelley