Another chirp drifted into the room from outside. The window was open again. It hadn't been ten minutes since Jacob had slammed it closed. He stared at it, into the front yard beyond where the grass had become an ugly orange-brown, and thought of how exposed he was. Anything could get in once the latch and been swiveled open. The thought made his bones tighten. Sniffling and hacking, he got up from his chair to close it again. He was getting sick.
It was the tail end of Fall, and all of the leaves that had been in the trees were on the ground; golden and deceased. In the mornings, frost had started to form on the roofs and hoods of cars and the grass had become brittle. It crunched underfoot at every step; the only sound Jacob focused on as he tramped across his back yard, checking for signs of the intruder.
But he hadn't been outside to check in three days. For him, it was no longer safe to do so.
Two weeks earlier, he had been a normal high school kid. He did everything one would expect of a lively senior: weekend boozing, class skipping, and the occasional after-school slice at Yucca Steve's Pizza Palace. Everything seemed to be just as it should have been on a perfectly sunny Wednesday morning.
That day, Jacob had slept through his alarm and lay in bed as his parents engaged in their usual coffee ritual in the kitchen. They poured it, steaming and black, into their enamel mugs and grimaced as they took it in. Shrugging on their coats, they roared off in their respective vehicles, leaving the boy alone in the house.
They worked in the city, and wouldn't be home until late, so when he finally woke up and found that it was past noon, he decided to shirk school and take his time getting ready to cruise out to the strip mall.
He slipped out of bed and walked over the cold wood floor to his bathroom where he brushed his teeth for nearly ten minutes. As he did so, he stared at his eyes. They looked vapid, like a twin set of opaque swamps with swirling bog bubbles at their centers. He spat a bloody soup of toothpaste and plaque into the sink and dried his mouth with a towel.
There were no clean shirts in his closet, so he plunged a hand into a mountain of worn clothes next to the footboard of his bed and retrieved a shirt and his favorite pair of jeans. Once dressed, he proceeded through the hallway and the living room into the kitchen and whipped the freezer door open.
Raspberry tarts were his favorite, and he was in luck. There were five, so he took them all out and stood in front of the toaster, heating them in cycles until they were in a steaming stack on his plate. He filled a glass of milk to compliment them and brought his bounty, teetering, to the coffee table in the living room. With a latent finger, he pressed the power button on a remote sitting on the table. The television crackled to life, howling sports. He was disheartened to learn that his favorite football team had lost.
It was a very important thing to him. Like most sports fans, he didn’t realize that he was volunteering his heart to be torn in two with each ignoble defeat his idols encountered.
Jacob sneered, flipped to the music channel, and wolfed down his tarts. If he had been more aware, he might have heard the tap that occurred at each window in the room, one after the other, every two seconds. And the chirp.
Thirty minutes later, his stomach was full. He slipped into his shoes, grabbed his board, and left through the front door, kicking it closed behind him. It was only two-fifteen, but it seemed unusually dark. The few shredded-cotton-ball clouds didn’t account for the deepness of it.
He jogged out into his front yard and almost threw his board down to roll away, but some dark crouching thing at the far end of the street caught his eye as he neared the curb. It was standing behind a sycamore in the Jamesons' yard. It looked like pure shadow, head indeterminable. A light wind was ruffling a row of hedges just behind it, which appeared to agitate the figure. When it wasn’t looking over its shoulders or back down its side of the street, it seemed to be focused on Jacob.
"Hey!", he said.
The shadow didn't react, but he thought he could hear a chattering rasp coming from somewhere deep in the thing's throat. He didn’t like the sound one bit.
"The fuck're you looking at?"
His question went unanswered. The dark creature started moving back and forth as if it were the native inhabitant of some far flung island, doing a dance to invoke its gods. Jacob could feel sweat slick on his temples and the hollow throb of his heart. He was getting the jim-jams in a serious way. Suddenly, he wanted to beat it. To kill it before it could do something horrible to him. He took a few quick steps off of the curb and started yelling.
“Answer me, you little bastard, or I swear to god I’ll—“
But suddenly, the shadow was gone. It was like it had melted into the grass. Spilled like a towering column of India ink.
Utterly perplexed, Jacob could think of nothing else to do but jump onto his skateboard and light off down the street, leaving the shadow behind, odd and unexplained. He'd always thought better of following the whims of curiosity. He had seen too many scenes in horror movies end badly because of such indulgences.
The wind blew his hair back into a rippling raven flag. He kick-flipped up onto a stairway railing on his way through the neighborhood park and grinded down into a manual at the bottom, screeching to a stop after landing it and yanking his fist down to his chest in celebration. A nearby kid whose face had been invaded by a spore-like smattering acne gave him a thumbs-up. He returned it graciously, beaming, and sped off down another hill.
The whole time he rode through the streets, he consistently peered over his shoulder, just in case there was some black gaping nightmare sprinting at his heels. He had the distinct sensation of being followed. The feeling was leaching the joy from his bones.
Fifteen minutes later, he arrived at the strip mall. Leaves were drifting around lazily in the parking lot, skidding against the concrete, rasping out a symphony. The air had grown slightly colder, and there was no one to be seen mulling about the storefronts or cars. In fact, every store appeared deserted. Jake felt uneasy, and approached his final destination: Ceekiante Arcade.
Dropping his skateboard by the door, he shielded his eyes to counteract the obscuring reflection of the parking lot and peered in through the glass. He couldn’t see any of his friends tapping furiously at plastic keys or yanking on joysticks. There was no cashier at the counter. All that he saw was an inky dimness and a few specks of complacent dust that hung immobile in the air. Something was wrong. The arcade was always bustling with activity.
He tried the handle. At first it wouldn’t budge, but on his fifth tug, Jake wrenched it open with unexpected ease. It swung past him and smacked into the adjacent wall. He stepped inside, peering cautiously down aisles of game cabinets and growing all the more anxious as he worked his way toward the back. He figured he might at least find Mid-day Fred, the day janitor. He was always in the back, afternoons, chewing on his dirty beard as he toiled betwixt slimy, desperate teens.
But to Jake’s surprise, there was not a single sweep of a broom or rustle of a garbage bag when he neared the rear corner. Even after pushing on the lever to the maintenance room door, he encountered nothing but a continuation of solitude. He was utterly alone and each step he took became louder than its prior as the seconds of realization passed. It was unnatural for it to be that quiet at the strip mall, where everyone came to skip school and enjoy the days of their youth to the last drop.
In a panic, he called out, “Hello?! Is anyone here? At all?” But silence was his only answer.
He felt the sudden urge to leave. To go straight back home, to his warm room. His safe, comfortable bed, thronged with comic books and stiff socks. He started back toward the front door at a quickened pace, but after passing the restrooms halfway to the exit, he heard a squeaking and stopped, supposing that he had stepped in water. The noise continued, though. It wasn’t quite a squeak.
It was fundamentally different, but recognizable to him. Images were conjured in his mind of childhood, chasing butterflies through a park.
“Blue jays? Definitely not in here”, he said to the darkness. “Where do I recognize that sound from?”
Dread was coiling up in the pit of his stomach like a lead boa constrictor. He knew, suddenly, that something had been stalking him from the moment he’d walked in. Whatever it was, it continued to emit the queer chirp, just a row over from where he stood.
“That’s fuckin’ it”, he said, and sprinted for the door.
He refused to look back, but he could hear the sound of hard, narrow feet beating against the threadbare carpet, mere feet behind him. Broomsticks on ceramic tile. His stalker’s chirp had turned into a low whirring whistle that might have sounded like a cat purring after having eaten one of those small, plastic Casio pianos he used to play with when he was younger. The thing, whatever it was, was closing the distance between them. He could feel something like whiskers or antennae lightly grazing his shirt.
When he reached the door handle, he jammed it forward, burst out into the open parking lot, and continued to run for several yards. He could no longer hear the thing’s horrifying tone at his back, so he slowed to a jog and then walked in circles for a few moments. He stopped and doubled over, panting. It had gotten even darker outside and great viscous clouds, pregnant with rain and winking lightning had come rolling in from the South.
He didn’t see any cars in the road. The parking lot was still bereft of any sign of life. He scanned the broad, black street from end to end, rubbing his neck and sniffing snot back into his nostrils. It had grown quite cold. Freezing specks of rain began to stipple his scalp. He turned around to face the buildings.
Horrified, Jake remembered that his skateboard was still on the sidewalk. He’d have to go back and retrieve it before he could leave (and sure as shit, I’m getting the fuck out of here, he thought to himself), but the cost of such a feat caused his heart to quicken. He wasn’t sure he could make himself do it.
Keeping low, he slinked toward a nearby car and stared over its hood at the arcade. Everything seemed lethally still. It was a trap, waiting just for him. He stayed frozen, observing the prospect of returning for nearly fifteen minutes before deciding that he just couldn’t do it. Sighing deeply, he turned his back on his board and left. His lips were trembling.
Hardly able to take a step without surveying his entire panorama, he traversed the streets back to his house, but avoided the park. It seemed to him that passing through there was a death wish; that it was the perfect place to become prey. He didn’t allow himself to blink until he stepped foot on the wilted grass of his lawn.
The following weeks were a nightmare. The horror wasn’t caused by being constantly under siege, but because nothing happened though the threat remained palpable. He could feel aerated poison sinking into his lungs.
The furthest he would travel from his refuge was the curb at the street and the boundaries of his yard. His parents never came home. Even though he rarely saw his neighbors to begin with, they were most definitely out of the picture after the chirping had started. He wanted desperately to know what was happening to him, but the simple fact was, if he left in search of answers, he would surely die.
Sometimes, just as he was falling asleep, one of his favorite CDs playing silently through the stereo by his bed, he would hear a rising chorus of chirps in the distance. The din wasn’t loud enough to bring him out of his hypnagogic state, but his skin grew lousy with goose bumps. It sounded like a continuous, muffled shriek. Like a beautiful by-product of mass torture.
Then, one day, it came for him.
He woke up, and the window was ajar. Cold wind was funneled into his room and rushing across his body. It was six in the morning, during that strange interim between night and day where the entire world is a flat wash of gray and, if a person hasn’t slept, horribly alien thoughts come to mind.
Jacob heard it unmistakably, just outside of his room under the window sill. Something was there and all that kept them apart was half a foot of sheetrock, wood, and vinyl siding. He couldn’t breathe. The follicles of his scalp were tightening. It seemed like the external world was being sucked away through the hole in his wall.
Getting up slowly, he slid his legs across the sheets and placed them carefully on the floor. He rose and, every three seconds, stepped closer to the noise. There was no retreating into the hallway or the bathroom. He knew that to turn his back on the thing outside was to perish without knowing.
The gusts of wind that spewed in at him as he drew closer caused his nipples to harden and shrink. He held himself tightly in his bare arms, his teeth chattering, and squinted against the cold. It took him five minutes to reach the window.
The suspense was pulling his skin taut over his bones as if it were a civil war drum hide. He stuck his head out and there was nothing there.
Ducking back inside, he whirled around to make sure nothing was standing at his back and slammed the window closed. With the whisper of the lock sliding back on its groove into the clasp, the portal was closed.
Jacob stormed into the living room, lashing the walls of the hallway with the belt of his robe as he went. The chirp was becoming more frequent. He couldn’t escape it and the fact was beginning to eat away at him.
He walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge. It was nearly empty. He had expended the last of the sandwich supplies two days before. Staring at the barren, chilled shelves, he wished that his parents had gone to the grocery store before blinking out of existence. He would have liked a couple of tasty snacks before facing his doom.
He settled for a meal of six frozen “Nuggie Kids” chicken nuggets.
And he knew that it was only a matter of time before his end came to him. Whatever was outside had started to follow him around the house, no matter where he went. It would chirp sometimes in the midst of absolute silence, just to make him jump. He hadn’t taken a shower in a week for fear that the stalker might take such an opportunity to waltz inside and get a peek at him before sinking its teeth into his supple flesh and making a meal of him.
The dining room table was gleaming from the overhead chandelier as Jacob sat at its head and stared at a dated newspaper from the morning of The Sixteenth. There was a tap on the window. Just behind him. He turned dubiously in the chair, rolling his eyes and shifting his body so that he could see what had made the noise. As soon as the wooden frame entered his peripheral vision, however, there was an implosion of glass shards. The thing was upon him.
It had Jacob pinned onto the table. He stared into its crystalline black eyes. They were lidless orbs set deep into a doughy white head, if a head it could even be considered. More like a malformed sculpture from a kindergarten art class. A scripture, direct from Hell. It had seven appendages: six of them seemed to be its legs. The seventh extruded from its back through a crop of fungal air sacs (they inflated and deflated intermittently to no obvious rhythm). It was tipped with a terrifically sharp barb that seemed to be leaking a dark purple liquid down its shaft.
The creature had a ragged maw, just below its eyes. It imposed its putrid breath all over his face. He tried to speak to it, but before his words could amount to much more than a weak rattle in his throat, a shrill chirp blasted out of it and slammed his skull down onto the wood. Its legs began to rattle in their joints. The barb jutting out of its back was curling around its neck and arching. The creature was deciding whether or not to impale him with it.
Jacob tilted his head to look around for something to beat it off of him. Just inches from his head was a fallen jag of crystal from the chandelier that had hung above the table minutes before. The thing was leaning in close for some sort of death kiss when Jacob snatched the glimmering fragment and sank it deep into the nape of its neck.
It belched a screech that made Jacob’s head feel smaller, as if it had begun fold in on itself like possessed origami. He was close to passing out, but the survivalist in him realized the momentary reprieve for what it was: a chance to wriggle free and fortify himself in his bedroom. He had a solid pine Louisville slugger propped in the corner just to the left of his door. He was imagining just how good it would be for pulverizing the gooey bastard’s skull.
He slid out from beneath the trilling horror and rolled off the side of the table. Even as he slammed against the dining room hardwood, he could sense a tension at his rear. The thing was regaining its poise and reacquainting itself with its target. Jacob pawed at the floor while pushing himself forward with a few clumsy lunges. He was deafened with the buzzing din of insect wings. The creature was already at his heels.
Within a few horribly distorted seconds (the million threads of each second forming a weave which pulsated and churned back and forth), Jacob crossed the threshold of his bedroom. He swiveled on his heels and rammed the door into its jamb with his shoulder. Shortly after, he could hear a solid, violent impact on the other side. The thing had flown headlong into a sudden dead end and was likely dazed. Taking a chance on it, Jacob grabbed the baseball bat and whipped the door open.
The creature’s legs had given out and splayed at its sides. The shrill tones it had been emitting were replaced by a confused whirring coming from deep inside of its body. It was a writhing black mass of twitches, its white play-dough head bobbing merrily. Jacob took no time to study its ghastly form, however. He simply brought the bat down onto it. Repeatedly.
Fifty swings later, there wasn’t much of the thing left for him to observe. He released the bat and knelt, panting. Immediately, the smell of the thing’s fluids assaulted his nostrils and made him fall dumbly back into his room on his ass. He scrambled up onto his feet, enraged, and skirted the abomination to make his way to the kitchen.
It was hours later when he awoke. The world beyond his window had become orange with the cant of the sun. He noticed with disquieted clarity that he could no longer hear the blue jays singing as he had only a week before. When he sat up, he heard a sickly squelch and, looking down, observed lengthening tendrils of clear slime oozing off of his back.
Panicked, he leapt up and ran into his bathroom. At the mirror, he beheld the worst image of his short, miserable life. There were colonies of pustules expanding and collapsing rhythmically on his cheeks and forehead. He opened his mouth to scream, but the moment his lips parted, a green, chunky mess delivered itself from the captor cavity into the porcelain. With a dawning delirium, Jacob recognized the fetid gruel as his tongue, disintegrated and sedimentary in his head. It had rotted while he slept.
Instead of a screaming himself hoarse, he had a sneezing fit, but with each violent “ah-CHOO”, a bold crimson jet misted the porcelain bowl. The blood that hadn’t evacuated itself was running down his throat and when vomited it out, most of his teeth wrenched free in the downpour. They were floating in the piss-smelling water of the toilet among chunks of the chicken nuggets that he had nuked and eaten that very morning.
Five hours later, Jacob was cringing like a shrimp on the floor of his parents’ bedroom. His skin was a gruesome shade of green, glinting with ichor as some inner slime pushed its way through his pores. He was rotting, alive.
He had staggered around the house during those hours, searching for medicine. There was nothing that he thought might help him, but even so, he swallowed six different kinds of vitamins and every cold & flu capsule he could find.
After the doom settled in, he contented himself with moaning and beating his fists on the walls. The skin on the sides of his hands had been flayed, revealing the hamburger meat gristle beneath.
Entering one room, his eyes flickered over the furniture with gut-wrenching familiarity. He’d run a circuit of the place at least twenty times before stumbling his parents’ room and collapsing. The muscle fibers in his legs had beginning to liquefy.
There were jagged puddles of dark green and orange fluids crowded around his laboring form, soaked into the carpet. His body had been squirting them out of various newly formed holes in his chest and back. His mental faculties were beginning to slip away when the door to the hallway opened.
A dark humanoid midget stepped in. Dark, actually, wasn’t quite precise. It was beyond darkness. It was like a howling body-shaped hole in mid-air that was sucking light into it; a walking singularity. It chattered to itself, taking infinitesimal steps toward Jacob as he stared up at it.
A vague thought rose to the top of his brain like a bubble in a glass of water. That was the thing hiding behind the sycamore in the Jamesons’ yard the day this all started. Ever so slightly his eyes began to widen. He tried to wrench his body across the carpet, to create distance between himself and the whistling anomaly from beyond, but the moment he squirmed he could feel his spinal cord separate from itself like a saturated strand of toilet paper. He screamed, and literally coughed up part of his lung.
The dark being approached him and crouched, tilting its head in an almost loving way, as if it cared. Then Jacob saw one of the last and most horrifying sights of his life: multiple tentacles leered out of its back and began to form balloon-like spheres at their tips. The spheres then began morphing into recognizable faces – all of his friends, his parents. They gaped down at him and moved their mouths open and closed, but produced no words.
Tears were spilling down his cheeks as he looked on. The thing bent over him, planted its hands on Jacob’s head and pulled him closer. He could feel the skin on his face loosening itself from his skull and fluttering away in sail-like flaps. Suddenly, words filled the room, but they weren’t quite being spoken. The thing was injecting them directly into Jacob’s mind.
He didn’t understand, but he thought back at the thing with what was left of him in his sickly, dissolving gray matter.
Sorry for what? Why is… this?
The sucking, bipedal thing shook him in its grasp.
I JUST COULDN’T HOLD IT ANYMORE!
The thing’s thought-words were so loud that the skin on Jacob’s scalp was splitting, and the bone beneath was criss-crossed with jaunty scribbling cracks as it ruptured from the force. He was all but gone. A goofy smile crossed his face. He began to slobber, but tears still welled in his lower eyelids.
I WAS ZOOMING THROUGH SPACE AND I REALLY HAD TO GO! I SWOOPED DOWN ONTO THIS PLANET AND TOOK THE HUGEST, MOST MERCIFUL POO OF MY LIIIIFE. BUT I NEVER COULD HAVE KNOWN THAT THERE WAS LIFE HERE… AND NOW…. AUGH!
And now what? Jacob thought, giving the grieving thing a humorous wink. When he reopened his eye, it burst, and its insides sluiced out of the socket onto his collarbone.
WELL… NOW I HAVE TO CLEAN UP MY MESS.
With that, the being embraced Jacob and sucked his skeleton clean with its vacuum skin. Moments later, his face visage sprouted out of its back on another one of its black, writhing stalks. It had a wan but jubilant expression as it bobbed.
Hundreds of miles to the South, an enormous burgundy mountain, swarming with otherworldly insects, sat where skyscrapers once soared in downtown Atlanta. It was pulsing with veins of ethereal red light and emitted a brown shimmering fume which was accumulating above it in a shit-colored nimbus.
It was the epicenter of a waking nightmare. For hundreds of miles around it, the ground had been decimated. Mulched up mounds of rock and dirt had been overrun with a bright red fungal carpet. The air was pierced with a never-ending chorus of chirps as leagues of winged creatures with bulging sacs and whipping stingers pranced across a completely new topography of hillocks and valleys.
Lurching pillars of green sludge that once were the city’s fine citizens were rooted to the ground. Very faintly, under multiple layers of cosmic defecation and growth, their moans could still be heard.
As the sun rounded the planet and abandoned the demolished façade of the urban skyline, the stars opened their eyes. They were brighter than they had ever been, looking down on the end.