narrated by Bob Eccles
True Story: I never thought buying a gallon of milk would prove to be fatal.
He came at us like the Marshmallow Man, pasty but hairy and flushed and sweaty, gargling and huffing, staring straight through us as he staggered with arms flailing outward. It looked like he was drowning on dry land, a fish out of water. My wife slid behind me as we walked. I had the milk jug in one hand. We passed the bookstore. There were cars in the parking lot. He came right for us, babbling huskily, his T-shirt soaked.
Swine flu? Bubonic plague? Had terrorists infected people at random and set them loose in local shopping plazas within walking distance of suburban condominium complexes? It was the perfect plan for mass-contamination. Ground zero. I was prepared to ward him off with my gallon of two percent. But he passed us without incident.
I held my breath until we were at least fifty yards away. I’m sure my wife did the same.
It was the logical thing to do.
I wake up at 3:00 AM.
I check the locks on our front door. My wife usually notices, but she doesn’t say anything. Does she think I’m OCD? Maybe. She doesn’t notice now. She’s in bed, sound asleep. I peer through the peephole at the unit across from ours, lifeless in the yellow light. They haven’t switched from incandescent bulbs yet. The HOA hasn’t demanded it.
My hand drifts to the deadbolt, the doorknob. My fingers check for the second time in less than a minute. Perpendicular means locked. I might have installed it wrong. My eye doesn’t leave the peephole. I think about Marshmallow Man and Night of the Living Dead, intermingled in my mind.
I see a figure crawl by on its hands and heels.
What? My heart leaps, adrenaline surges. My grip tightens on the doorknob. What was that?
I don’t open the door. Of course not. I’m safe standing here, watching. The door is locked, I know. I’ve checked.
Another figure scuttles past. Like a beetle. But it’s a person, awkwardly trying to move as an insect would, a cockroach. Without making a sound.
We’re on the third floor. I can usually hear every footstep outside. It drives me crazy sometimes.
These walls are paper thin. If anybody wanted in here, it wouldn’t be that difficult. For the Marshmallow Man or these Bug-People.
It’s 3:02 AM. I should go back to bed. None of this is real.
Three o’clock is a weird time of night/day. Too late to be night, too early to be morning. I should warm up some of that milk we brought home.
But I watch through the peephole instead.
Nothing. I’m imagining things.
Another beetle scurries up the stairs and pauses in front of the unit across from us. Silently, it perches with fleshy human arms and legs bent at strange angles. The head rotates. It faces our door.
Marshmallow Man’s face.
I clap a hand over my mouth to strangle the sound. Marshmallow Beetle stares at me. He blinks, sidling toward our door. He knows I’m here. Go away. Leave us alone. You can’t be here. You can’t be real.
I have a baseball bat in the hall closet. Our only weapon. That, and a set of Wusthof knives. A wedding present last year.
We had cockroaches when I was a kid. Not pets. Somehow, they always got inside our house. Even then, I’d wake up at 3:00 AM to use the bathroom and get a drink of water—self-defeating behavior. The roaches would pop and ooze cream under my heels. Bits of them would stick to my socks. I hated them.
I should go and get the baseball bat. But I can’t leave the door. My hand is glued to the knob. If I pull away, there might be a sound. Marshmallow Beetle is waiting for it. He’ll summon his friends, and they’ll come through the walls like those roaches used to.
(This is a true story. I told you so. I’m not going to wake up and realize it’s all some bizarre dream. That’s not in the cards. There’s going to be a fatality here. Remember? I never thought buying a gallon of milk would prove to be fatal. Still reading? Good. You won’t be disappointed.)
Marshmallow Beetle is below the peephole now, out of sight. He starts scratching at the door. Lightly at first, tentatively. Then he paws at it with open palms, pounding and sliding. He’s going to wake up my wife. I can’t allow that. She needs her sleep. There have been layoffs at her office.
I release the doorknob and tiptoe to the closet. I get my bat. It sounds like the giant beetle’s throwing his weight against the door now, trying to force it open. I approach the peephole and grip my weapon with both hands, bringing it behind my ear. The other two figures, the first two I’d seen, creep into my field of vision. They grin at each other, crawling toward my unit.
Why our door? Why not the neighbor’s, right over there? Go away. Leave us alone. I don’t say it out loud. I hope they’ll get bored and move on, whatever they are. Some kind of sick home invasion cult? Mutants in the first stages of their transformation?
“Get away from here. I’ll kill you,” I whisper, tapping the bat against the door.
The pounding stops.
“What is it, baby?” My wife staggers into the living room, rubbing at her disheveled blond hair and yawning. I slide the bat behind the couch before she notices and head into the kitchen. I tell her to go back to bed. I warm up some milk in the microwave.
I glance at the front door.
“Trouble sleeping again?” she asks.
I nod and take a step back. Something pops beneath my heel. But I’m afraid to look.
BIO: Milo James Fowler is a junior high English teacher by day and a writer by night. Stop by anytime: www.milo-inmediasres.com