by Michael Jess Alexander
Part 1 appears in this issue.
The floor creaked and, before he could determine the direction of this sound, the man stepped before him, holding a flashlight.
“This way,” the man instructed, wearing that same expression of restrained intensity. He then turned and led Hunter to a door just beyond the foyer staircase.
The man opened the door while Hunter took note of the large, fully stocked bookshelf to the immediate right of the doorway. Being an avid reader and despite his guardedness, he briefly wondered at the potential for this possible mutual interest.
“We can chat more freely in here,” the man said, gesturing to a small burgundy sofa against the left wall of the cramped, windowless, lamplit room.
As Hunter navigated around a narrow coffee table to get to the sofa, he became aware of his rapid heartbeat, a thump, thump, thumping rhythm broken by the click of the door as it closed behind him. He gripped the revolver in his pocket and focused on controlling his breath. While he sat, the man nestled into a pale green recliner on the opposite side of the tight room.
As if the garish lamplight were the glow of an angel, the man let his grim demeanor wash away, replacing it with a smile. In this harsh light, the man’s rough face was a hodgepodge of flesh and shadow, and Hunter could not help but realize his preference for the man’s more neutral expression.
The man chuckled, and Hunter, unable to perceive an alternative, forced a grin.
“Another human,” the man said, his voice now relaxed and friendly.
Where the man’s smile had fallen shy, the tone of his voice just met the mark, and now Hunter allowed himself to chuckle, too. He loosened his grip on the revolver. “Another human,” he said, echoing the man’s words as though he and the man were old friends reminiscing.
He reciprocated the man’s smile. More than that, he beamed. Allowing himself an open expression of emotion after a considerable stretch of obligatory stoicism had him giddy and, in opening this valve, he felt the threat of tears stowing away with his joy but managed to keep them at bay.
The man, he could see, still wore an easy grin.
“Do you know of any other survivors?” Hunter asked.
“Sure, sure,” the man said.
“Oh, you don’t know how relieved I am to hear that,” Hunter sputtered.
“Boy,” the man said.
Hunter continued, lost in the moment. “I’ve been thinking I was—”
Halting, Hunter looked at the man.
“You’ve walked right into a spider’s web.”
The man pulled the recliner’s lever, and with spring-loaded speed, the recliner carried him backwards through the wall, which opened up like a double door and closed after him, all before Hunter could process what he’d uttered. Then the lamp turned off, prompting Hunter to leap from the couch and scramble for the door.
Despite the pitch-blackness, the size of the room made the door easy to locate. Encountering no resistance from the latch mechanism as he turned the knob, he threw his shoulder into the solid wood, but the door refused to give. A whooshing sounded above him, and a faint, sweet smell struck his nostrils.
Feeling dizzy, he plucked the revolver from his pocket, but as the seconds progressed, the weight of the gun and the weight of his body felt more and more as though it were supported by a house of cards. While he vacillated between firing at the wall or the door, he collapsed.
* * *
Blinking as he returned to wakefulness, Hunter’s eyes grew wide with realization. He was bound to a metal chair, each ankle secured to a chair leg and each wrist bound to an armrest with a zip tie. Twisting against the restraints, he heard the ruffle of plastic, and a glimpse around confirmed that he was on top of a plastic sheet spread across the floor.
Breathing through his nose because of the duct tape over his mouth and — as suggested by a cottony taste and texture — the sock in it, he beheld the man lounging in the recliner, draped in a red flannel bathrobe, smirking at him.
The recliner was back in its original position, but the wall behind it was open, exposing a rectangular space beyond the reach of the lamp’s light. To an impartial observer, the man, illuminated by the lamp and framed by this darkness, might have resembled the uncommonly pleased subject of a Baroque portrait, but Hunter, almost singularly focused on escape, lacked the mental space for such a comparison.
Still smirking, the man stood and carried a black duffle bag from the side of the recliner to the coffee table, which now sat lengthwise against the wall to Hunter’s left. He kneeled before the table and unzipped the bag.
“You asked about other survivors?”
The man reached into the bag and placed on the table a mostly stripped human skull. He flashed a toothy grin at Hunter, then grabbed and placed another skull next to the first, and then another, and then another, and then another.
The acrid smell of death pervaded Hunter’s nostrils, and he writhed against his bonds with increased vigor but merely managed to irritate his wrists.
“This whole thing has been” — the man said, gesturing with a swing of his arm as he returned to the recliner — “quite a boon time for me.” He ran a hand through his sparse, brown hair. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a lonesome octopus, changing his color to blend in with a sea full of guppies. But not anymore,” he said, bobbing his eyebrows. “Now I’m an apex predator surrounded by lesser predators and... the occasional guppy. And while guppies are less common nowadays, they’re easy for me to spot. They” — he said, nodding to the arrangement on the table — “were easy to spot. You,” he said, nodding to Hunter, “were easy to spot.”
Again, Hunter strained against his bonds, imagining not only the plans the man had in store for him but also the exuberant retribution he might inflict on the man if only he could free himself.
“In case you’re curious, I do worry about running out of guppies. Whether they” — he said with a motion of his head — “or I exhaust the supply first. I suppose I could begin to target the aliens, if need be. That would be less fun, obviously.” He shrugged. “Or I might leave the city and find a place they haven’t yet taken over.”
The man gazed at Hunter. “Most of you have had guns, I think. A gun or a knife, for sure. I won’t be using a gun.” He got up and disappeared into the void behind the recliner.
Hunter howled through the gag but only produced a pathetic, muffled sound.
The man returned, pushing a utility cart covered by a black cloth with a white, Byzantine pattern. He rolled it in front of Hunter, then gently removed the cloth and placed it on the recliner. On the cart lay an assortment of tools.
Hunter scanned the collection and eyed a pair of pliers, a ball-peen hammer, a hacksaw, an ice pick.
Heavy knocking sounded from the direction of the front door.
The man placed his hands over Hunter’s shoulders. “Please wait here while I see who that is.” He then disappeared into the darkness behind the recliner.
Hunter continued to fight his restraints. He could hear talking but could not discern what was being said. Steps approached the room, and the voices became clearer as they got closer.
“He might have snuck in while I was sleeping,” he heard the man say from the other side of the door. “What does he look like?”
Oh God, Hunter thought, feeling as though the wind had been knocked out of him. They’re looking for me.
He thought of his travel through the city to the tenement house. Did I let my guard down? Did I expose my humanity by moving with excited haste or by expressing eagerness for even the briefest moment?
The man’s voice intruded on his thoughts. It stood out for some reason.
He’s too calm. Certainly, he understands that as soon as they open the door, it’s over for both of us.
The steps and voices began to move away from the door.
Why don’t they open the door? They’re behaving as though it’s not even there!
Making no progress against his bonds and looking to the collection of skulls, a terrible, exciting idea struck Hunter. He filled his lungs and yelled with no regard for his vocal cords, but the gag still stifled the sound. He then pushed up with his toes, raising the chair some, but he was limited in leverage by the restraints on his legs. Pushing again, with enough force that the restraints began to bite into his shins, he toppled the chair, and it came down hard. His head thumped against the unyielding floor, and electric white filled his vision.
A commotion erupted in the hall, a sudden succession of bangs and grunts terminated with a shriek.
Lying for an indeterminate amount of time in a growing pool of his own blood, Hunter listened as the unexpected visitors searched the hallway.
Eventually, a voice called out, “Help me move this bookshelf!” A moment later, Hunter heard the smooth sound of a heavy object being pushed on rails.
The door burst open and Hunter, able to view the entry by tilting his head to the side, recognized that same look of animal determination on the faces at the doorway. He closed his eyes and smiled, even as the tendrils crept over him.
Copyright © 2021 by Michael Jess Alexander