by Kirby Ray
A convicted criminal is stalked by a monster he helped to create...
| It was 4 AM when Carter finished his shift at the grocery store, and the streets were painfully silent as he made his way home. His car was one of the few out on the road, save for trucks and the occasional night owl, and the first rays of dawn were still a few hours out. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, urging himself to drive on until he got back to his parents' house and could pass out in his bed. Even though he had been working the graveyard shift for the last few months, his body refused to adapt to the unusual schedule.
Of course, if it were up to him, he would never have been stocking shelves for minimum wage in the dead of the night; he was meant for better things than this menial labor. He was going to take the track team to states, go off to a big league school on a scholarship, and cruise on into a cushy job at his father's law firm. That was the plan--until Nadia, that is.
The steering wheel creaked as Carter gripped it until his knuckles turned white, the grinding of his teeth waking him up. Why couldn't she have kept her mouth shut like all the others? She could have gotten a small fortune if she just kept quiet, but she just had to spill her heart to everyone who would listen and vilify him on a national level. So what if he only got off with community service in the end? So what if she had thrown herself off a cliff when it was all over? His life was ruined, and it was all Nadia's fault.
A heavy thud on the roof of his car shook him from his musing, and Carter nearly drove off the road in shock. He glanced up and wondered what could have possibly hit him, as there were no trees along that stretch of Market Street. As he slowly pulled over to the shoulder to check for any damage, he heard a scratching sound that sent chills down his spine. Though he tried to reason it away, he could not shake the sickening feeling building in his stomach that something was very wrong.
When he came to a stop, so did the scratching, and he briefly wondered if he ought to just get back on the road rather than investigate. But no, he had to find out and assure his frazzled mind that it was just the odd hours messing with him. It was easy to believe there were monsters lurking around every corner whenever he got off work, exhausted as he was, and he had to remind himself that he was just playing tricks on himself.
Carter slid out of the car and hoisted himself up so he could see if anything had hit his roof. There was no dent, despite how loud the impact had been, but what caught his attention were a number of scratches along the driver's side of the roof. They were not the sort of scratches left by squirrels or cats, but something much sharper--something that left gashes in the roof. He ran one of his fingers through the claw mark, the color draining from his face as his mind quickly conjured up all manner of beasts.
When he glanced back down the road, he could see nothing, though he doubted he would have found any evidence even in the daytime. Whatever had caused the damage was long gone, and he was not going to go snooping around at dawn to search for answers. If anyone asked, some punks had messed with his car while he worked; it was believable enough, since he was persona non grata around town.
The drive back home was thankfully uneventful, though Carter kept his eyes and ears open the whole way should something else happen. When he got back to his house and let himself in through the back door, he took one last look over his shoulder to ease his frazzled mind and assure himself there was nothing out there. He let out a sigh of relief he had been holding in the last few miles and walked inside, ready for sleep and put the memory out of mind.
It was noon the next day when Carter woke up and trudged downstairs to make himself some food--cereal, since he did not have the stomach for much else. His mother was already at the kitchen table, going over one of her many to-do lists; his father would be at work, not that it made much of a difference. Though he sat down right across from his mother, so close that he could touch her if he reached out, there was not a word shared between them.
While he was never particularly close to his parents to begin with, the house had been growing colder ever since the trial. Mom and Dad stuck with him out of their familial obligation and not wanting to tarnish their good name; if he had been a perfect stranger, they would have called for his head like everyone else. Though he had only received a slap on the wrist from the judge, their name had been dragged through the mud right along with his: his mother had to step down from her job on the school board and his father's firm was flooded with thousands of scathing reviews online. There had been so many screaming matches that Carter had lost count, but they eventually settled into a routine of frosty silence and disregard.
Mother and son said not a word to each other as she worked on her notes and he ate his late breakfast, neither even sparing a glance. It was only when Carter finished and went to get his running shoes that she asked, "Where are you going?"
"Going to take a jog around the pond," he answered. "I'll be back in a few."
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" his mother asked, looking up from her paperwork for the first time since Carter walked in the room. "Remember what happened when you went to the gas station last week?"
Carter gripped his knees as he remembered the angry mob that formed around him when all he wanted to do was pick up some cigarettes. Nadia was sure to love that, wherever she was--burning in hell, he hoped. He could not go anywhere in town without someone recognizing him and slapping, punching, or spitting on him, which was why he had no choice but to take the graveyard shift. And to think the judge had given him a lighter sentence so his life wouldn't be impacted by a twenty minute mistake.
Remembering what the court-mandated counselor had told him, he took a deep breath before replying, "I'm not going far, and I'm going to stick to the trails. There shouldn't be too many people out there right now, and I can just outrun them."
"Mom, if I wanted to stay inside all day, I would have just taken the prison sentence," Carter grunted as he got up and slammed the door on his way out.
It used to be that he ran because he was good at it and he knew it would take him places--a means to an end. Ever since the trial, and when he was no longer under house arrest, his midday runs were the only time he felt like himself again. When he jogged around the pond near his house, he felt like he was back on the school track, outpacing everyone and showing off for the coaches. No one could catch him, and he had the best records in nearly twenty years, but those accolades were stripped away as soon as Nadia opened her mouth.
Carter tried to get her out of his head, but she refused to leave and chose instead to haunt him throughout the day. Sometimes, there were fleeting glimpses that flickered through his mind--hazy recollections of her at school, church, or at the courthouse. Other times, it was like she was standing right in front of him, staring at him with that same terrified look, as if he was some kind of monster. The worst were the times when he woke up in a cold sweat after dreaming of her crumpled body on the ground.
There seemed to be no way to shake her from his head, so he did the only thing he knew best and ran as fast as he could manage. All Carter could see was the road ahead, empty save for the occasional passing car; all he heard was his beating heart, steady breath, and pounding feet. Once he hit the trails, he would have some peace of mind, fleeting or otherwise, and he could forget the hell his life had become.
He ran three laps around the pond--almost two miles--before he came to a stop at a bench and stretched his legs. Just as he figured, there was hardly anyone around to give him grief, save for one old man that shot him a dirty glare as he passed by. Carter had never appreciated how serene it was by the pond, where the only sounds were the occasional bird, the spray of the fountain, and the distant hum of lawnmowers.
Then, as he tightened his laces, there came a new sound from behind him: it was a deep, rough growl, but it did not sound like any kind of dog he knew. There were stories about wild animals skulking around the neighborhood, like coyotes and bobcats, but he had not expected to run into any in the middle of the day. When he turned around to see just what it was, Carter found himself all alone with no other soul in sight. The trees were so thin that nothing could hide behind them, and a quick glance up in the branches revealed them to be empty.
As he scanned his surroundings for the source of the snarling, he noticed that the other sounds were silenced. The birds stopped chirping, the fountain shut off, and the mowers in the distant grew quiet, leaving only the disembodied growl. The worst part--the part that made his heart freeze--was that even though he could not find the source, it was getting closer.
Carter wasted no more time in searching, turning tail and running as fast as he possibly could. He pushed his body to the limit, fear fueling him as he tried to put as much distance between himself and the thing as he could manage, but it was not enough. No matter how fast he ran, the beast seemed to be right behind him, growling and snarling like a rabid animal and pounding at the ground with heavy footfalls. His heart was beating so much that it felt like it would burst from his chest, but Carter forced himself to go faster still. He could not afford to slow down, for even the slightest drop would surely mean his death.
When his house became visible again, Carter felt a flicker of hope burn inside his chest, only for it to be snuffed when he heard the growling right behind him--so close that it felt right in his ear. He closed his eyes and propelled himself up the street, praying to whoever would listen that the demon would leave him be. This was not how he was supposed to die...not the victim of some wild animal. If he could just make it to safety, he would do whatever they wanted: give his paycheck to Nadia's parents, plant flowers on her grave, send apologies to everyone he had ever hurt; whatever would appease the savage beast.
He vaulted over the backyard fence, sprinted to the back door, and slammed it behind him, and only then did the growling stop. Carter pressed himself up against the door as if to block off whatever had been chasing him, but nothing happened; nothing slammed against the door nor scratched at it like his car. His hand shakily rose up and lifted the blinds open just enough for him to peer through, only to find there was nothing outside. Whatever had been chasing him--if there was even something to begin with--was gone.
"Carter, is that you?" his mother called from upstairs. "Is everything all right?"
"I'm fine! Everything's fine," Carter hollered back. "The wind just caught the door."
Nothing was fine as he leaned against the door and slumped down to the floor, his body still tightly wound despite the assurance that there was nothing after him. Then he thought back to the scratches on his car and he wondered if that was really the case. If the growling was all in his head, were the claw marks delusions too? It was a better thought than the alternative--that something was out to get him.
When his heart finally stopped racing and his hands ceased shaking, Carter climbed off the floor and fixed himself a glass of water. If exercise was a bust, the only thing he felt would help was more sleep; surely it was just his odd hours playing tricks on his head. Maybe the counselor could give him some tips, since the last thing he needed was some figment of his imagination ruining his life too.
Carter went back to work the following night, and no matter what he tried to tell himself, his nerves were on edge. He constantly glanced out to the parking lot every chance he could, as if he might catch a glimpse of whatever had shredded his car. Every odd noise--of which there were many in a mostly empty grocery store--caused the hairs on his neck to stand up straight. Nothing came after him, save for his manager when he needed help in the stock room, but that did little to relieve his frazzled brain.
The late night shipment turned out to be small that evening, which meant that Carter was walking out to his car before 4 AM. His car was parked right under a street light, but that did not make him feel any safer as he walked the fifty feet from store to car. He glanced over his shoulder the entire distance, and when he finally reached his car, he walked around it to make sure nothing had broken in while he was working. All his fears were for nothing, as there was nothing inside but trash that desperately needed to be cleaned out.
Satisfied, Carter let out a sigh of relief and slid into the driver's seat, just missing the sound of large wings flapping overhead. Just when he thought he was in the clear, he heard a sickening growl that made him jump in his seat and slam on the brakes. He spun his head in every direction as he tried to find the source of the noise, only to realize that it was nothing more than his stomach making itself known.
"Food should help," he mumbled to himself as his heartbeat returned to a normal pace. "Some bacon and eggs and I'll be all right. Yeah...yeah, let's do that."
There was an all-night diner just up the street from the store--so close that Carter could have walked to it--that he normally avoided to keep out of the public eye, but he was in need of food and anywhere would do. He pulled into a space close to the lights of the restaurant and quickly made his way in, checking all around him every few feet. It was only when he was sat in a booth that he felt safe and allowed some of the tension out of his shoulders.
"You're on the late shift too?" asked a waitress as she came over with a pot of coffee.
"Just got done," Carter replied softly.
He slid his mug over to be filled and cast a glance back at the kitchen, where the cook was hard at work at the grill. A second waitress was leaning against the bar and scribbling in a little notebook, but Carter paid her no mind. They were just ordinary people, and if they worked the graveyard shift too, they likely did not care who came in to eat.
"Let me just get a couple scrambled eggs, three sausage links, and some hash browns," he requested, which the waitress committed to memory.
"Be out in just a few, hon," she hummed before sauntering back to the kitchen.
As Carter sipped his coffee, he kept his eyes peeled for anything outside, but there was nothing lurking in the shadows. Maybe it was all the stress of the last couple years catching up to him, and the late hours he kept only made it worse. He needed to start looking for a new job, one that would have him working during the day like a normal person. It would be a big step in getting his life back on track if he could, and that was the goal, was it not?
He was shaken from his thoughts when the chef approached him with a fierce look on his face--one that was all too familiar to the pariah. Carter slumped in his seat and grumbled, "Man, I just want to get some breakfast; I've been working my ass off all night."
"Get it somewhere else," the surly man snorted. "We don't serve rapists."
Carter gritted his teeth and clenched his hands into fists at that name. It used to be that if anyone recognized him in town, they would see a star athlete that was bound to go pro one day. Now, he was one of the most infamous men in his own hometown and had been kicked out of so many stores that he had lost count. Even if he left, where would he go that no one would recognize him? His mugshot was now in textbooks all across the country; there was nowhere he could run and stay anonymous.
"Look, I'll pay double whatever you want, just give me a little food," he begged the cook, who just glowered down at him with such contempt.
"I wouldn't give you a crumb even if you gave me that car out there. You march on out before I throw you out myself," the cook grunted.
It was not a battle that Carter could win: if he left, it was just one more place in town he could never go to; if he stayed, he risked having the police called on him. Ultimately, his fear of the authorities beat out his fear of the unknown, and he got up from the booth without a fight. He could not resist one act of defiance though, and he slapped his coffee mug to the floor, where it shattered at the cook's feet.
"Tasted like rat piss anyway," Carter sneered on his way out the door.
As he stormed back to his car, he could feel the staff glaring at him from the window, judging him just like everyone else in the world. His whole world was getting smaller and smaller by the day, and he wondered if it would get to the point where he could not even leave the house. The scorn he suffered on a daily basis was unbearable and, were it not for the conditions of his parole, he would have fled long ago to somewhere no one knew his face. He peeled out of the parking lot, unaware of a fourth pair of eyes that watched him from the roof of the diner.
Carter rocketed down the street, his foot firmly planted on the gas pedal and his teeth grinding against each other. All he could see was red as visions of Nadia danced through his head, tormenting him the only way she still could. He could still see her crying crocodile tears as she told the world all about that night and tore his character to shreds at the stand. If she had not already done it herself, he would have killed her with his bare hands.
Just as he spotted a gas station down the road, something crashed down on the roof of his car with such intensity that the ceiling all but caved in. Carter jolted in his seat and slammed on the brakes before coming to a screeching halt on the shoulder of the road. He looked up to see that whatever landed on the roof had missed him by mere inches, but before he could reflect on that, he was alerted by a hideous screech from above. It was nothing like the scratching sound from the night before; it felt like someone was slowly dragging their nails across a chalkboard in his brain.
Then he saw it: a pale hand reaching down from the roof and scraping across the windshield, razor-sharp claws nearly cutting through the glass. It was all the incentive Carter needed to escape from the car, but just as he undid his seatbelt, another hand slapped against his window. He screamed as the thing pounded against the glass, more and more cracks forming with every strike, and he scrambled for the passenger door to escape. Thankfully, his attacker left that door uncovered, and Carter tumbled onto the ground before finding his feet.
When he spun around, he came face to face with his mysterious assailant, and his blood ran cold at the sight of the gruesome beast. Its body was mostly that of a human woman, save for a pair of massive wings on its back and claws as long as knives on both hands. A set of tusks jutted out from her mouth like a boar, one pair on her lower jaw and a smaller pair on the upper. It was clad in a dress that was filthy with dirt and torn in many places, revealing sallow, blotchy skin underneath.
But the most disturbing of all--the part that held Carter captive in his fear--was that a bed of snakes rested atop its head in place of hair. The mess of serpents slithered and aimlessly writhed about in every direction, their hisses louder than a swarm of cicadas. Unlike the beast beneath them, the snakes were dark and sickly in color, with some as black as crude oil and others a jaundiced yellow. What terrified Carter the most was that even though there were a good dozen or more snakes atop the beast's head, they all turned to glare at him.
The beast glowered at Carter and rose to its feet, where it towered over him like a grim, fallen angel before jumping down to the ground. A guttural growl rumbled past its lips--the same growl that hounded him at the pond the day before. Foam dribbled from its lips like a rabid animal and its movements were crude and clumsy, as if it were not in full control of its muscles. None of that mattered as it got closer though, because once he looked past the snakes, tusks, and pallid skin, he saw the face of the monster. It was the same face that he saw every hour of the day; every last detail was burned into his memory.
"Nadia?" Carter whispered. He had said the name countless times in anger over the last few years, but this was the first time he ever said it out of fear.
The thing with Nadia's face snorted before its lips curled up into a mocking sneer. It pointed at the cowering boy and, with a raspy gurgle, grunted, "Carter..."
He did not ponder how Nadia could have come back or if that was even her to begin with. Instead, Carter turned and sprinted down the side street faster than he thought possible--even faster than when she chased him from the pond. Unfortunately, the outcome was the same as the day before, for though he broke all of his previous records, there was no outrunning the abomination Nadia had become. All he could do was pray that he found some shelter so he could have a chance to think and plan his escape from her.
But that chance never came. Carter suddenly felt his feet go numb and heavy beneath him, and he fell onto the pavement with a sickening crack. Blood gushed from his broken nose and split chin, but that was nowhere near as concerning as what happened to his feet. When he tried to stand up again, Carter only managed to get to his knees; everything below them felt like they weighed fifty pounds each. He peered over his shoulder as best he could and found that his feet were covered in a thick layer of craggy rock, and try as he might to move them, he felt nothing beneath.
There was nothing he could do but try and crawl towards sanctuary, but Nadia was on him in an instant. A heinous mixture of serpentine hisses and bestial growls announced her presence, and Carter felt his heart sink in his chest when he saw her looming behind him like a skulking predator. Despite her shambling pace, she still managed to catch up to her prey and grabbed him by the head, only to slam his face into the pavement a second time.
When she peeled him from the sidewalk, tears mixed with blood and he choked out, "Nadia...please, stop."
Her lips curled even further as she put a finger to them and shushed the boy. "Don't worry, it'll all be over soon; just let it happen."
They were the same words that he had told her that fateful night, but Carter was too panicked and beaten to notice. He blubbered incoherently, apologies and pleas for his life combining into an unintelligible mess that ultimately fell on deaf ears. Nadia stood back and watched as the stone climbed further up Carter's legs, weighing him down and numbing even more of his body. It soon reached his knees, then his waist, and then his chest, spreading like wildfire across his body.
"Please...sorry...so sorry," he croaked, the words hard to make as he felt the air petrify in his lungs. "Stop...Nadia."
"Nadia is dead, and you killed her," the monstrous woman seethed. "She could not live with the suffering and humiliation you brought on her, so she took her life at the bottom of a cliff. But you still needed to be punished, so the universe brought her back as something more--something no man could ever wrong again."
Carter reached out to her in desperation, but his arm fell limp and stony to the ground as the petrification spread from his shoulders. Though he tried for one last plea, all that came out was a raspy whisper, for his throat was already rock. All he could do was flap his lips and look to her with teary eyes, but there was not a trace of mercy to be found in her face.
The monstrous woman ran one of her claws down his cheek and whispered, "Now and forever, I am Medusa--and you? You are nothing."
They were the last words Carter would ever hear. His last thoughts were not of his parents, his friends, or any other moment in his life. All he could see in that final moment was Nadia's face glowering at him one last time before it all went black.
When the car was found the next morning, the police opened an investigation into the cause of the accident and the whereabouts of Carter, but they were in no hurry to find him. Even his parents could not be bothered to look for their son, making a solitary interview before retreating into privacy once more. His disappearance would become one of the many unsolved mysteries in the world, but though many would speculate on what had happened, most agreed it was better he never turn up again.
The body, meanwhile, was found by a jogger on the grounds of an apartment complex. After the city trash collectors said they would not dispose of it due to it exceeding the weight limits for bulky item pickups, the complex's maintenance crew brought it back to their workshop and broke it down over the next several days. They had no reason to believe it was anything besides some ugly statue, and so they took their sledgehammers to it and brought the pieces to the community dumpster. Carter was laid to rest in a mountain of garbage, his body scattered across the landfill and lost to time amid so much refuse.