I was shaken from my short but intense journey through the wormhole, down the drain. My vision finally cleared and the whole world stopped spinning. All things normalized as I got my bearings once again.
Well, maybe normalized wasn’t the right word. Because, for one thing, the sky was purple.
Not the setting sun kind of purple, not the purple caused by pollution and smog. It was brighter, so brilliant it almost hurt to look at it. It was the type of purple you only saw when you were burning copper wire in a fire pit.
It was gross, but also comforting, having aLizardbeth’s tongue wrapped securely around my waist. It was my life line, my way home. Not like my home was too great at the moment, but back to my friends anyway. I’d never leave them behind.
I scanned the purple sky, seeing nothing else too out of place. The clouds shone and shimmered with a golden hue. Besides the color scheme being different, however, nothing else seemed too off about this place. Not yet, anyway.
I walked a few paces forward. I was on a paved street. After a moment I realized that I was on a paved street that I recognized! It was the one that ran the length between Aldi and the White Hen. The bushes lining the street were the same, the street lamps were positioned at the same intervals. Hell, even the potholes were the same. I leapt over one with a practiced ease. It was weird, but it really did feel like home here. It was all familiar. It was all the same…almost. Besides the difference in the color of the sky and clouds, the temperature was a bit different. A bit off. At first, I couldn’t tell how. But once the sun rose a bit higher in the sky, turning everything an even brighter shade of purple, I realized what the air was lacking, despite all the light. It was devoid of heat. The sun brought no comfort, no warm caress. It wasn’t that it was cold, but just that you could tell there was a void where warmth was supposed to be. That made me shiver.
I took a few more steps. I passed the Ovaltine factory, which featured a parking lot full of unmarked white vans and a bunch of silver smog rising from the brick chimney stacks. The air smelled faintly of chocolate.
On my right, I saw a brick and mortar barbershop. Sitting in front of it was a four foot pole, white with stripes of red and blue. The two colors intertwined like mating snakes as the wind blew and rotated the pole. At the bottom of the pole, there was a thick steel collar locked in place, which in turn was attached to a massive chain that led through the slightly open doorway of the shop. It was like the pole was being prevented from running away.
I turned a full circle, taking in all the familiar surroundings, trying to detect their slight differences. All businesses seemed open. Cars were parked all along the road, but that was the only evidence of people. No movement. No footsteps. No shadows. Just a long empty street, a copy of a copy of my street at home.
The chocolate smell that clung to the air grew stronger as the wind increased in volume. It morphed from a gentle breeze to a stirring gust into a roaring biting howl with the destructive speed of an avalanche. The vicious wind, combined with the lack of heat emanating from the sun, created a depth of chill that I didn’t know I could feel.
I could see my breath as it puffed out in little panicked bursts, creating a micro version of the silver smog overhead. It probably smelled like chocolate and fear.
I cinched the sticky tongue tighter around my waist, wishing it was a jacket. I began to bounce and jog in place, trying my best to stay warm as I waited for the wind to pass.
More than likely it took only seconds, a minute or two tops. The chill soaked into my bones and made my teeth chatter. It felt like an eternity.
The wind died down. I shivered and rubbed my muscular arms vigorously until I started to feel the tingles of life again. I sighed, relieved. Then I did something I learned to regret. Without thinking much of it, I spoke. Just to myself, just a small comment. Something innocent, innocuous. Something about the weather. I said aloud:
“Well that was cold.”
The words were quick, the response immediate. As if the words were already loaded to the tip of someones tongue. Someone who was expecting me.
I whirled around and I saw a man in the middle of the street. A man who hadn’t been there just a moment before.
I tried to take in the features of his face, but I couldn’t. They, like the wind, transformed and swelled and abated. Like his features were caught in a constant wind storm.
“You know nothing about the cold. No, not like me, anyway. Cold. It was cold alright. Cold like I’d never felt before. Cold on that night, that dreadful night. The one that was two years in the making.”
The man slipped a hand rolled cigarette from the pocket of his blanched almond jacket. He put it in his mouth, a swift gust of wind accompanying the gesture. The wind made the lighting of the cigarette impossible, but that didn’t seem to matter. He puffed on it anyway. And as he did, small fluffs of silver smog floated skyward. Whether it was the cigarette or his breath, I couldn’t tell. But the breeze blowing across the previously deserted street now smelled of tobacco and chocolate.
“It all started two summers beforehand. In my mothers house, as I stayed there between my first two years of college.”
He puffed. The smog helped obscure his flowing features even more.
“One night, I had my girlfriend over. I put her up in my room and I took the spare bed down in the basement. It was the gentlemanly thing to do. And my mother never would have allowed us to sleep in the same bed. Not in her house.”
The man puffed and shook his head slowly. Like a man deep in thought and remembrance. Each twist of the neck was accompanied by a chilling burst of wind.
“That particular night, I was feeling lousy. Food poisoning I believe it was, from lighter fluid on my burger. A bad grill job. Anyway, I’m in rough shape. Shaking. Sweating profusely. Feverish. My girlfriend sat at the foot of the bed for a while, trying to keep me company, trying to comfort me. All from a safe distance of course, in case it was something contagious.”
Another strong gust came, the tail of his jacket flapped like a windsock. A dark felt hat came rolling down the pavement, caught on the breeze like a tumbleweed.
“She was in her usual bedtime attire. A warm grey hoodie. Dark blue sweatpants, a pair that hadn’t fit her well since freshman year. It was dark in the basement, and since it was night, it was a bit cold as well. She put her hood up. She shivered.”
The man finished his cigarette. He didn’t drop it or snuff it out. It simply disappeared. With one hand he produced a second one to smoke. With his other hand, he waggled his fingers, the movements erratic and impossibly fast. Like straw wrappers trapped in raging waters.
“She asked if it was okay for her to go upstairs and sleep. Get warm. I told her it was fine. Truth be told, she was annoying me as it was.”
The felt hat caught an upward swell and blew right into the his waiting, wriggling fingers. He put it on and tipped it down low over his shifting forehead. The effect made him look like an old school mobster carved out of wet sand.
“She went up the stairs and was gone. About two seconds later, I heard footsteps on the stairs and saw her coming back down. The grey hood was up. The blue pants still didn’t fit.”
The man took in a large breath, then let it out slowly in a large plume.
“She got to the bottom step and then just stood there. She wasn’t even looking at me, she was looking forward. It was weird. I asked her what she wanted. Asked her if she forgot something.”
Another long inhale. Another silver exhale.
“She didn’t speak. She just slowly turned. Didn’t move, still stood there. But now she was facing me.”
Another breath. Another breeze.
“I asked again, what did she want? I told her she was being weird. I told her she had gone upstairs ten seconds ago so I knew she wasn’t sleep walking. What the hell did she want?”
Another cigarette vanished. Another appeared. The mans features continued to storm.
“She took a few steps towards the bed. It was then that I noticed that she was taller. And the way she moved was unnatural. Slow. Stalking. Like a predator.”
The man shook. At first I thought he was laughing, but I soon saw that he was crying. His features turned grey. Cloudy. Tears of rain dripped from the tail of his tan jacket, dampened from a blanched almond to a cashmere.
“She moved from the foot of my bed and took two very slow, very deliberate steps towards me. Down the righthand side of the bed. When she was closer, I knew for sure that it wasn’t her. It was something else. Something wrong that had come down in her place.”
The rain continued to leak from the man. His jacket soaked from a cashmere to a dirt color with subtle lemon undertones. His shoulders heaved. His breath came out in strangled wet blasts.
“It leaned closer to me, hovering over me as I lay there, paralyzed by terror. The space beneath the hood was dark. Pitch black. It held only the implication of a face.”
The fingers that once flapped wildly now rose and wiped at his face. As it made contact, the features of his hand blurred and mixed with the shifting shadows of his quivering face. When the hand receded once more, it was frozen. Not just stiff, but actually frozen. A thin, shining layer of ice coated the motionless fingers wherever they pointed, now no more than a handful of stalagmites.
“It lifted its hands to lift the hood. I knew I couldn’t see what was beneath it. That I would lose my mind if I did. So I did all I could think to do. I turned away. I covered myself with my comforter, curled into a ball beneath the covers. And I lay there shivering and crying silently until I eventually fell asleep, waiting for somebody to come check on me and tell me it was safe.”
The man straightened. He lifted the felt cap, tilting it back up on his head. Like he was exposing his face, revealing what was beneath his hood. I couldn’t look either. I stared at my feet. I knew the man was still there by his freezing breathing and his wet words, which seemed to come at me from all directions at once. Up and down the street. In and out of my head.
“Morning came, as did my girlfriend. When she came down the stairs and didn’t scream bloody murder, I knew that nobody was by my bedside. Nobody was watching me. I decided to chalk it all up to hallucinations, lack of sleep. The food poisoning. I now realize that Ebenezer Scrooge thought the same of his first ghost. Guess it’s just part of the process.”
I continued to look down. My knees were shaking.
“The next day, we were sitting in the sun room, at the breakfast table. It was bright daylight. There was no doubt in my mind that I was awake.”
I continued to look down at the ground. Beneath my shaking knees, I detected movement. Something fluid, bubbling like a stream.
“I looked out into the yard and I saw it. The person, the thing in the hood. Standing right there in the backyard, leaning casually up against a large tree. The tree that my pet rat was buried under. The thing cast no shadow. Even without a face, I could tell that I was looking at me. That it was smiling at me.”
The bubbling brook pooled around my left foot and then wrapped around it, squeezing as it pulsed its way up my leg, a serpent made of moisture. I saw that it was the mans hand. The liquid took shape, long fingers dripped and extended towards me. The fingers held a cigarette, which they held up in offering to me. A frighteningly friendly gesture.
I couldn’t speak. I nodded my head no. The fingers receded and reversed their course. I wished I could keep staring at the ground, but that no longer felt any safer. I was colder where he touched me.
“I kept it all to myself. I didn’t want to sound crazy. I didn’t want to be told to see a doctor. Or go to church. So I tried to ignore it. I simply hoped that it would stop.”
The man put the cigarette I hadn’t accepted into his own mouth and started puffing away. He shrugged his shoulders. His shaking began to diminish. The jacket dried to a harvest gold color.
“Like all ignored problems, it didn’t go away. I went back to school. The hooded figure followed me. I saw it standing outside my classroom window. I saw it in the corner of my dorm room. Once I woke up in middle of the night and leaned towards my desk, towards my alarm clock. I tried to squint to make out the time, as my contacts were already taken out. The blurry red numbers grew closer and clearer. I read the numbers 2:06 as I realized the figure was sitting at my desk, watching me. Waiting for me to wake up. It was sitting in my chair, holding my alarm clock in its outstretched hands, beckoning me to get a good look. My roommate snored away in the bunk above me. I shut my eyes and would have nailed them shut if I could.”
I couldn’t see as much as I sensed that his eyes darkened while they roamed the landscape of his scowling face.
“This continued for the entire school year. Before I knew it, it was summertime again. This time, in an attempt to lose my hooded stalker, I stayed for a week at the apartment of my girlfriends mother. On the third night, after being forced to watch a marathon of wedding shows, my girl fell asleep and I lay on the floor next to her twin bed, cocooned in a forest green sleeping bag.”
The wind picked up again. I was cold all over.
“I lay, trying to sleep, but I couldn’t. I was kept up by a rustling sound that was coming from the closet. It was the sound of someone balling up plastic wrap, or crumpling an envelope. Or maybe it was the exact sound of something pushing aside a section of hanging clothing.
I turned and watched as two, then three, then four and more legs sprouted from the top shelf of her closet. They extended and crooked like a beckoning skeleton. They were dark as midnight. They moved with the gnarled grace of a spider. Soon, the legs touched the floor and a creature made of sinewy black lacquer lowered itself from the closet to the carpet. The carpet that I was laying on.”
The man’s legs didn’t move, didn’t walk, but the soles of his shoes seemed to melt and leak and float the man slowly forward. Over the pavement, over to where I was standing, tongue-tied in more ways than one.
“I watched as the thing spilled out of the closet and started crawling around the room. It lifted and examined things with an otherworldly curiosity. It picked at shirts in her closet. It sifted through papers on her dresser. As it crept over to a flimsy shelf that stood near my feet, my girlfriend began to stir and moan. She started to talk in her sleep.”
The man floated slowly, merely inching his way fluidly down the pavement.
“She spoke in her sleep often and I never woke her. Even when she had nightmares, I knew they would pass. I knew that a dream only lasted forty winks, that it wasn’t worth spooking her by shaking her awake. This time, well, this time was different.
As the dark thing crawled, skittering up the side of her shelf, she began to moan loudly. Like she was in pain. She began to whisper. Low, mumbled at first, then growing louder.”
The man had closed almost a quarter of the distance between us. As he floated, he puffed, leaving a trail of smog behind him like an ancient locomotive. I didn’t know what to do or where to go.
“I didn’t know what to do, or where to go. I was trapped. Trapped by fear, by a monster, by a sleeping bag. The dark thing had no face. I could tell it was smiling. It lifted a large green and blue stuffed monkey from the shelf, the one that my girlfriend called Mister Monty.
My girlfriend’s words got louder, clearer. When I could make sense of them, I wished that I hadn’t. She was saying, over and over again in a panic, ‘Don’t touch me, I hate you. I hate you Jesus, don’t touch me!’
I couldn’t move, so I decided to scream. I screamed her name, I shouted for her to wake up. Both her and the monster seemed startled by my actions.
For her part, she sat bolt upright, letting out a shriek of surprise and fear. If it was from the dream or my shouting, I didn’t know. The monster leapt from the shelf, its arachnid appendages cushioned its landing. It was on the ground and then back in the closet before Mister Monty hit the ground. As the shadow raced past me, one of its many legs accidentally touched my foot.”
The man stopped moving. His feet solidified again, then froze over. He stood still as a statue. The sweet smelling air all around me turned frigid.
“When it touched me, I felt cold. Nothing else, only cold. Empty. It was as if every ounce of happiness, every shred of hope and joy that I had in my life, simply evaporated. Was ripped away. I was a hollow husk, a shivering empty shell. My soul was deracinated.
It took quite some time to feel human again. To feel warm again. My girlfriend asked me how Mister Monty fell, asking if I kicked the shelf. If I had gotten up to rummage around while she slept. Knowing she heard the noise, knowing she saw the stuffed monkey fall, I knew that what I was experiencing was real. I couldn’t chalk it up to my imagination anymore. Couldn’t blame insomnia or fear or mental illness anymore.
I wasn’t ready to admit this out loud yet, so I asked her about her dream. Asked if she remembered it. She shivered before she said yes. She then told me about her dream. She told me that she was being chased by a person in a hood, wearing a grey sweatshirt. She described the being as tall, silent, unnerving. She described the exact thing that I had been seeing for over a year. I hadn’t told her about it once.
She told me that the figure chased her down, pinned her down on a bed. When it had her trapped, it began to touch her. It touched her face, over and over again, slowly, picking its place each time with care. Every time it touched her, she felt more pressure in her head. More force behind her eyeballs. She felt like she was inflating, that he was going to cause her to pop. To kill her. She fought back, hard as she could.
In the ensuing struggle, the hood fell off. She saw the thing for what, or rather who, it was, something that I had been avoiding ever since that first night.”
The man flapped in the wind. The jacket tightened around his bloating frame, threatening the tear at the seems. The material stretched and unraveled, turning tight and taupe. A storm raged around him, and also through him. Cold, glacial winds filled his jacket until his whole profile threatened to fill and burst. The storm around him seemed nothing compared to what he held inside.
“She told me that the man under the hood was Jesus Christ. She told me she had never been that scared in her entire life. She said that she didn’t know what the dream had meant.
It took a long while to calm her down, my needs no longer allowed to be the primary focus. Once she settled down, she drifted off to sleep. I laid there for a long time. Outside of her mother’s apartment, it began to storm. Rain and slush fell in great drafts. It got cold, so cold. Colder than you ever could know. Colder than you ever should know.”
The left sleeve of the jacket split with a deafening boom. An explosion of wind blew forth from the opening, denting the body of a nearby vehicle. The windows shattered and showered the street with shards of glass.
The man opened his transposed mouth. His words fell from his parted lips, blown away more than spoken.
“I lay the rest of the night, simply shivering and shifting. I didn’t get a single moment of sleep. I thought only of her dream. Of why the thing that I was seeing was able to penetrate her mind, her dreams, and what that now meant for her. For me.
It’s been a few years now. I think about it nightly. I know there was a meaning in there somewhere, but to this day I’ll be damned if I know what it is.”
The man finished his cigarette. This one didn’t disappear. This one flew out of his mouth, propelled like a cork from a wine bottle. As it was expelled, so was the mighty squall that was scarcely contained by his taut tan jacket.
The wind ripped outwards with the crushing force of a hurricane. It knocked me senseless, sending me and the wavy ribbon of tongue flying upward, back towards the wormhole, back up the drain.
As I was flung farther along the rivulets of wind, the man’s final words followed me, stuck to me like honey.
“I know that I’ll think about it until the end of time. About all of it. The hooded figure. The spider-like thing. The dream. The weather, and whether or not it was all related. All part of some sinister plan that I would never grasp.”
I felt the pressure from the wind give away to the pressure of compression, the sucking force of being squeezed through a hole in time and space.
“This has been your whether report.”