In the darkness, shadows stirred.
Sleep never came easily to Angela and this was a particularly difficult night. Arms and legs tangled in sheets while she tossed and turned. Her traitorous brain was intent on reliving every painful memory it could dredge up. Grade school mistakes took on the same intensity as more recent fumbles. She counted to ten, to thirty, to a hundred and fifty, and when she finally started to drift off, her bladder awakened. Defeated, she got up to pee.
Now that she was awake, she didn’t bother returning to her rumpled bed. She flopped on the couch and flipped channels rapidly until she was disgusted with herself. Day after day, everything was the same. She was wasting her life.
She poured a glass of rum and retired to the window by the sofa. The picture window was the best feature of the bungalow inherited from her mother. It was inset with a generous sill where she loved to sit and write. Or at least she used to. It had been months since she had been able to pen more than a line or two of poetry. She was trapped inside her own empty head. Words were once her home but nothing flowed anymore. Pen prone in her hand and notebook bare, she stared out at the park across the street. She had once been acquainted with all its nooks and crannies, and especially the beautiful gazebo that now lay out of her reach.
She had spent a lot of time in the gazebo when her mom was alive. As the nurses trudged in day after day, Angela took the welcome respite and strolled across the street. She didn’t like to go far, just in case. Even those precious moments of solitude she took were guilty ones, but it was worth it. The fresh air centered her and she had done some of her best writing then. Nostalgia and something sicker wound through her. She lit cigarettes one after the other. She didn’t enjoy them anymore, but they helped fill the dull dead place in her brain. Her gaze danced around the park, the view of better times that haunted her. A thin stream of water spurted from the fountain between haphazard bushes and trees. Her gazebo looked lonely without her.
Movement beneath bushes drew her eye. Darkness pulsated in the gloom, making shadows twitch and dance. An animal of some sort rustled the foliage. The shape of the darkness changed fluidly, as blackness seeped out like an ink spill. Her heart beat a quick rhythm. She stubbed out her smoke. Limbs grew like branches and reached towards her. Angela shook her head to banish the vision. Lack of sleep could do strange things to a girl. She had barely gotten eight hours over the last week or so. Of course she would be prone to hallucination.
Shadow drew together into a rorschach of a man, blurred and abstract with spidery limbs. In broken motion, it crept through the park.
Angela’s heart pounded in her throat, leaving a coppery taste and a thin sheen of sweat broke out on her forehead. Her hands shook as she fumbled the window shut. She stumbled to bed on shaky legs and lay awake for hours. She was cracking up for sure.
Delivery was 45 minutes late. Angela prowled the rooms, a tiger in a cage. She wanted a cigarette, but there was only one left until delivery arrived. He couldn’t possibly be much longer, but the idea of having none at all was even worse, so she paced and waited. There was no reason for him to take so long, it was only a couple of groceries and a few packs of smokes. All the delivery services in this city were useless.
It was embarrassing but necessary. The store was only a few blocks away, but it may as well be miles. She would rather be embarrassed in her own apartment than completely vulnerable outside. Before mom’s illness, she had liked to get out and do things for herself. Nothing felt right anymore. The places she felt comfortable were eliminated one by one. The park had been her last safe haven, but after the death of her mother even that had become intimidating. Mom knew everyone in town. Angela hated their sympathetic eyes on her face. She hated forced conversation. She could see disappointment buried deep in their eyes when they saw the truth about her. She wasn’t her mother and she could never fill her shoes. They droned on and on and she stood outside her body, watched herself break down under their gaze, tongue thick and unresponsive to their pleasantries.
She pressed her head against the window to gaze down the street. Still no sign of her delivery, but there were kids in the gazebo. Their shadows looked normal.
The last time she had talked to her therapist, his advice had been to keep trying. Even getting out for a few minutes a day would help build her resistance if she made a habit out of it. The longer she spent inside the worse she was making things. It sounded logical, but he just didn’t understand how impossible it was. He had called to schedule another appointment several times, but she never answered.
The doorbell rang and she breathed a sigh of relief.
She tried again. If she could just sit in the gazebo for a few minutes, it would be a start. Bring her notebook and pen and pray for a little inspiration. Get some fresh air. Nothing to it. Take a shower. Brush your hair. Watch your mascara turn to black streaks on your cheeks. Okay. Okay. Start again.
A final glance in the mirror betrayed her. Nothing looked right on her anymore. Clothes clung uncomfortably to her hips and thighs. She had gained close to twenty pounds in the last few weeks. Just another thing to be ashamed of. No matter how little she ate, the inactivity caught up to her. That and the drinking. There was only so much pacing you could do in a small house. She hesitated in the doorway, the judging sun staring down at her.
Okay. Just the front step then, just sit out there for a few minutes.
The sky yawned huge and overwhelming above her. She slammed the door shut and retreated back to her window. Safety. The breeze barely counted as fresh air if she polluted it with smoke. This was not how she pictured her life. Housebound at twenty-six, smoking like a chimney and whittling away her inheritance bit by bit. She couldn’t even write a goddamn poem once in a while. Without feeling, it was impossible to write, and all she felt was shame.
Darkness came on slow and comforting as blanket. Night was better. The cheerful sun mocked her, but the moon was her friend. The evening bled into midnight. Angela stalked the house. She felt lost between rooms, her head dusty. She should eat something nourishing, something besides processed snacks, but the effort of cooking was too much. Everything was tasteless anyway, dust in her mouth.
Rum and coke made her thoughts blur as she peered outside. She was almost ready to attempt sleep when she saw it again. She blinked hard but it refused to disappear, a stain in the darkness. Oily shadows writhed as the dark man prowled. He moved so slow that she wondered if she were really seeing him at all. Was she insane?
Limbs like tentacles stretched between streetlights and moonbeams. His features were hidden, obscured by the darkness that enveloped him. He pulled himself across the ground like a spider, gripping dirt and earth with fingers like splinters. He weaved from the bushes toward the pond, where ducks quacked and dozed. Angela gasped as dark tendrils snaked out, wrapping in loops around one of the birds, causing the rest to disperse in a cacophony of panic. The captured duck struggled briefly before being ripped apart. Meat and feathers tore apart. The dark shape devoured it, bones and all.
Darkness dispersed, leaving only silence behind.
Angela retreated to bed but did not sleep. She lay awake questioning her sanity.
In the daytime, the park looked normal. The sunshine made her bleak thoughts seem even more insane than they did in the shadows of night.
Angela stood with her hand on the phone for a long time. She should call her therapist. She should have called him long ago. The butterflies in her stomach turned to angry bees.
It was easy. Just pick up the phone and dial. That was the first step, at least. Then she would have to get to his office somehow. Make an appointment, spend days and days dreading it as panic buzzed in her belly. When the time finally came, call a cab and wait. Make small talk with the cab driver as the world sped by her. Sit in the office and let the cranky receptionist stare her down. Finally, be called into the office and have to talk and talk and talk and listen and it was just too much. It was impossible. She left the phone in its cradle.
Through the window, she watched a woman pin a lost dog poster to the telephone pole, adding it to a flurry of others.
She kept the blinds closed that night. She sat in her stuffy house with the TV turned up loud to drown out her thoughts. She even managed a couple minutes of sleep as the dawn drew near.
Missing pet posters papered the telephone poles. Angela stopped watching the news. There were too many missing person reports. It was depressing. Sitcoms were better.
Time passed listlessly.
Blaring the television was usually enough to block out noises from the streets, but late on a Friday night she heard the laughs and gasps of drunken teenagers. She expected them to pass out of hearing range quickly, but when the shrieks and giggles continued she peered reluctantly outside.
They must have broken into the park. The public weren’t allowed in after 10 p.m. but it was close to midnight and the gates yawned open. There were a handful of teens in the gazebo. They didn’t even try to be subtle as they drank out of bottles and passed joints back and forth. Dread churned in Angela’s stomach. They shouldn’t be there, but it wasn’t her business, was it? They shouldn’t be there at all.
The bushes shuddered as something made its way through. Youthful laughter drowned out any noise it might have made. Angela watched in horror as rippling shadow slithered from the bushes. It coalesced into slender fingers and pulled its impossible body towards them.
She couldn’t bear it. Her heart pounded a jangled rhythm as she shoved the window open and leaned outside. Her voice was shaky from disuse. She cleared her throat. “Hey, assholes! Get the hell out of there! I called the police. Go home!”
Bland white faces looked at her. A tinkling of girlish laughter, and one of the guys tossed an empty can loosely in her direction. “Hey, fuck you lady!” He called. They giggled and shouted as they scampered away, leaving the park silent. Angela’s relief was palpable but short lived. She had drawn its attention.
Long shadows stretched into her yard in strange lines and horrifying angles. A smudge of black eyes looked into hers. They were too dark, blacker than anything she had ever seen, black as the nothingness of space.
It was bigger than it had been before. Hulking with misshapen limbs curling and bending back on themselves as it crawled toward her. Angela slammed the window shut and lurched away, her back smacking painfully against the wall behind her.
She froze in fear as shadow bled through the windowsill. Bottomless eyes stared at her through the glass. The darkness in them was too deep, making her dizzy. She felt like she was falling. She slouched against the wall, unable to break eye contact. Amorphous shapes writhed and Angela was lost.
A smoky tendril gently caressed her arm and a sharp bolt of pain jolted her from the hypnotic daze. She yanked her arm back but the coil of shadow licked around her wrist, yanking her towards the window. More shadows writhed their way under the lip of the window sill and she gaped at them in horror.
The pain was crisp and deep, and for the first time in ages, Angela’s mind went razor sharp. She had only moments to do something, before the rest of the shadow reached her and swallowed her whole like the poor duck. Using all of her strength to hold steady, her eyes sought out a weapon, but there was nothing.
Just her lighter in her pocket. She fumbled it out with sweaty hands and flicked the wick. Light against shadow. It was worth a shot. She held the flame to the loop wrapped round her wrist. It hissed and sizzled, loosening its grip. Angela stumbled backwards at the sudden release of pressure. The lighter flew from her hand. From the window, darkness continued to pulse into her home. Her home. God, nothing was safe. Panic rustled in her throat and she raced to her room. She needed to think. She locked the door, but the half inch of space beneath it was dangerous.
Her breathing quickened as she wedged handfuls of clothing beneath the door to fill the gap. She couldn’t catch her breath. She couldn’t think. There was no time. She had to do something.
Her purse spilled open beside her bed and she rummaged for her phone. Dialed.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“I don’t – fuck! There’s…someone’s breaking into my house, okay? Please, come quick.” She dared a glance back at the door and her stomach sank. Between the folds of her clothes, fingers of shadow followed her, fusing together as they entered. She dropped the phone. No one could save her now. She backed toward the window. The outdoors loomed menacingly, but she had no choice anymore. The window wasn’t so far from the ground. She could make it.
A bottle of rum sat next to her bed, and in a haze she reached for it. She moved carefully, quietly towards the door, staying well out of reach of the exploratory tendrils. She splashed alcohol over the clothes and reached for her lighter.
“Oh hell,” she muttered. It was in the hallway somewhere. She lunged across the room and overturned her purse. A pen rolled lazily towards the door and darkness snaked out to crush it between coils. At the bottom of the pile, she found a butane lighter. She turned back to the creature. There wasn’t much time. Snakes of blackness spiraled toward her. She flicked the lighter and tossed it towards the clothes. They ignited in a burst of flame.
It screamed. Smoke and ash danced in the fire. The flame spread quickly, smoke overtaking the room. Angela coughed and made her choice. She opened the window and barrelled out.
The sky was too big. Dizzy, she stumbled through the yard and across the street. Sirens blared in the distance. She sat in the gazebo and watched the little house burn. Not her house. Her mother’s house. Thick black smoke spilled out in clouds, but nothing escaped.
Angela wished for a pen. She felt like writing.
BIO: Betty Rocksteady is an eclectic author and illustrator from Canada. Her early exposure to Stephen King, The Weekly World News, and EC horror comics shaped her into the woman she is today. With art and fiction, she explores personal fears and resonances. Her short fiction has been published by Halloween Forevermore, Grievous Angel, and Another Realm. Her debut novella, Arachnophile, is part of Eraserhead Press 2015 New Bizarro Author Series. Learn more, and check out her macabre pen and ink art at www.bettyrocksteady.com. Keep in touch and keep up to date at www.facebook.com/bettyrocksteadyart.