by K. Medeiros
"Reality used to be a friend of mine."
|Justin remembered how excited he had been to move. Urban life had sounded marvelous and important. It took all of a year to save the money, but at last he had made it to the fabled city of steel. Nevertheless, his anxious joy of a new place quickly faded. The condo Justin had envisioned withered away, revealing an apartment with rotting walls and cockroaches for roommates. After four months, Justin had given up hope. Reality, once the friendly face of a small town, had become a dark, brooding villain. Its features contorted from warm, weathered curves to cold, pristine lines. Now the chance to redeem himself had risen. A job just north of the metropolitan area had come up, and by the grace of fates Justin had earned an interview. Today was the day, and up until he left his dying home Justin believed he was ready.|
The world spun like the horizon viewed from a terrible whirlpool. Shoulders thrust their way past with the force of a raging current. Sunlight reflected off bits of glass with the occasional spectacle lens. The silk lining of Justin’s suit jacket shifted loose against his sweat drenched arms, conjuring up the vision of potatoes jostling for space in an oven. Justin stopped to remove the jacket. The world around him kept up its pace. Knocked off balance by a woman in blue, he became tangled in the jacket and almost fell. The jacket whirled round his forearm as he battled gravity for the right to stand. The thumping of his heart echoed in Justin’s skull, ears, and neck. Amid the rush of nameless strangers, Justin’s vision blurred. Wet gasps of hot, polluted air shot from his mouth as Justin groped his way through the crowd and found an alley. Worn walls of stone towered overhead. Crevices of decay opened into shadows - peepholes placed for the stalking creature. Justin staggered past dumpsters and around broken crates. The alley split into three paths. From the right the odor of rotten flesh rose with waves of heat. A chain link fence blocked passage to the right. He pushed onward, squeezing his body through a gap between buildings no more than a foot wide, and fell into another unappeasable tide of humanity. An hour passed as he spun and drifted, lost in a sea of people. Pressing against any open walls he could find, Justin felt the world crushing against him. Elbows threatened to shatter his ribcage. Rubber hooves stampeded, crushing his toes as they thundered against the cement. A mixture of sweat, cologne, hair gel, and smog hung in the air. Each breath caught before it could reach his trachea. Justin paused and slid into a narrow space between buildings. The shirt collar clung to grimy bricks, threatening to choke him as he slumped against the wall.
It was somewhere between 135th street and 148th street when he felt it. The hairs from the nape of Justin’s neck to the middle of his back leaped to attention. Spinning round on his heels, Justin searched for the source of his building apprehension. Nothing leapt out from the growing shadows. No great beast tore through the endless current of people. He held his breath for a minute, anticipating the gnarled creature revealing itself in a flurry of blood, saliva and mange-ridden hair. He prayed it stayed hidden. After what felt like days, Justin turned back and resumed his journey. The presence lingered, and fear crept into his thoughts like the dripping of sap from a tree. The interview had lost its urgency, overrun by the chemical drive of deciding between “flight” and “fight”. By the time his watch read eleven, Justin was running up streets and down alleys at random intervals. Each turn led to another urban corridor of metal and stone, surging with faceless drones. Still, every glance Justin threw back said the presence waited just beyond the last corner.
Justin tore the top button from his collar, releasing its grip on his neck and sucked in a breath. He leaned out toward the crowd. It stayed, keeping him just beyond claw‘s reach. Justin shook his head. Clearly, he thought, there’s no escaping it. The frantic call to escape turned to sludge at the base of his stomach. With no other options, Justin turned and paced toward the next alley. His head swam with adrenaline. It was there. He could hear its low growl. Afternoon shadows shaped it, as the beast hunkered toward the gravel floor waiting to pounce. Justin charged, bursting from a controlled walk to a dead run. He rounded the next street corner. Nothing. Justin stopped, grabbing the side of a dumpster to counter his momentum. Panting, he searched for some clue to where the beast had gone. It took a whole minute, but he finally felt its presence waiting just across the next street. Three steps forward and Justin stopped again. Something wasn’t right. He blinked, mentally fighting a vague confusion. Reaching the sidewalk, he realized the street was empty. Minutes ago it was swarming with activity - now only the muted murmur of distanced chaos floated in the air. The tar and gravel riverbed stood motionless. Justin looked off to the right, and saw the next block was still active. Inhaling once more, he lowered his head and charged forward.
The squealing of tires caught Justin’s attention. He looked up in time to see a bright, chrome grill connect with his bent frame. Justin flew two feet before rolling to a stop. The muffled sounds of chaos closed in around his battered body. His vision began to fade. Grasping for consciousness, Justin turned his eyes to the alley. It stood empty. No presence lingered. Opening his mouth in despair, a gurgled moan rumbled low in the air. The street, packed with countless onlookers, beamed to white. The sounds of the city street lingered in this bright eternity, as if echoing from miles away. Sirens and panicked voices faded, drifting away on an unfelt wind. Soon, the endless white began to fade. Shadows of gray and black bled across the distance, taking caution while they encroached on the promised peace of a silent universe; and as the last points of light were being swallowed up, a growl rose from the depths.
WC :: 1049