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I stopped to check directions on my phone as I often did in that area. Something about those endless suburban roads always had me feeling vaguely lost, a sensation only temporarily alleviated by the sighting of any given landmark that I recognized from prior trips. All the houses looked the same, all the cars looked the same, and the streets were always quiet and empty at night.
The map on my phone showed me that I'd pulled into the wrong suburb... again. I actually recognized this one from last week, when I'd pulled in here by accident the first time. The curve of the street and the placement of the cars had seemed familiar, and that was why I'd thought I'd been on the right track.
Yawning, I took a big gulp of coffee, and idly scanned the neighborhood - a patchwork of velvet shadows couched between large bushes, and inky darkness draped under the eaves of heavy trees, all set against cutting beams and gentle spheres of light cast randomly by unevenly-spaced lamps.
I watched, mildly intrigued, as the silhouette of a dog ran by, skirting through yards and slipping between shadowed bushes. It made no noise, opting instead to move hurriedly past the edge of the neighborhood and off into the maze of trees beyond.
It occurred to me that I might have just seen the escape of somebody's beloved pet, so I yawned again, took another gulp of lukewarm coffee, and climbed out of my car. The cessation of engine noise and headlights brought an immediate collapse of sensation… cloying darkness and vast silence gripped me, and I made an uncomfortable walk toward the nearest beam of pale yellow light.
Standing uncomfortably within it, I peered around, wondering why I felt so oddly alone and exposed. There were dozens of people sleeping in the houses all around me. In case of unexpected danger, a single shout would rouse them all. Why, then, did I feel surrounded by solitude and desolation?
I decided to forget the dog. It was long gone, and something here felt very wrong.
Turning to head back toward my vehicle, I accidentally bumped a car parked near the sidewalk - and it shifted nearly an inch.
Confused, I pushed it again - and it shifted as I put my weight against it. It was heavy, certainly, but not immovable. Peering inside the car, I saw all the seats and interior I expected… leaning underneath, I shined my phone upward.
The innards of the car were all empty. It was just a shell - a prop!
Seized by an impossible notion, I crept up the front lawn of the nearest house, and peered in through one of the dark windows, my head rushing with the strangeness of the act.
Inside, I saw all the furniture and trappings of a normal suburban house. I almost turned away, disappointed… but, as I put my hands against the window to see better, the frame and the glass fell inward, smashing to the floor within with a tremendous crash.
I stood in place, peering around the dark neighborhood.
No dogs barked. No lights came on. The area remained deathly silent.
Convinced that my insane notion was more real than not, I climbed inside the now very open window.
The furniture within broke easily. The nicely upholstered couches and chairs had no strength, no internal construction - more props! The television sat empty of mechanisms, and the fridge had been gutted… climbing the stairs, I moved to the second floor, intent on making sure nobody was inside the house.
I froze as I saw them lying in bed. An older man and woman, asleep… had I just broken into someone's house? Had I had too much caffeine, and gone delusional?
As I stood frozen, it occurred to me that I could hear no snoring or breathing… I waited for several minutes… neither sleeper shifted. Trembling with adrenaline, I crept closer, not sure of my own intent… I stood above them in the pale darkness, staring down at the face of an old man barely illuminated by a sliver of light from the window. He seemed real enough… but I had to know. I reached out a single finger to poke him.
He was warm, and his skin felt completely real. I was starting to believe my own caffeine-induced hallucination theory… and, if so, it was probably time to bolt before he woke up and called the police…
I stepped awkwardly on the edge of a carpet near the bed, and fell forward, finding myself caught in a morass of strange warm sheets. As I pushed and lifted myself out of it, I realized, with an ice-cold shock, that they weren't sheets at all… the old man's body had collapsed inward into a mess of loose skin and flesh.
I stared at his face as it deflated - warm internal stench escaping through his loose eyes, nose, and mouth.
Was this horrible corpse-skin a prop, too? Who the hell would have gone through the trouble of building such an intensely detailed recreation of a neighborhood? And why make such a disgusting shell of a person? What purpose did this place serve? These questions ran through my head as I bolted down the stairs and back out through the window.
I knew my mistake in reasoning the instant I tried to open my car - only to have it shift under the force of my hand.
This place hadn't been built hollow - something was consuming machine and man from the inside out, leaving empty mockeries of suburban life behind.
Had that dog been running from… it?
I bolted, then, sticking to the middle of the street and constantly looking around in a barely-sensible panic. I didn't know what I was looking out for - whether a creature, a spirit, or a force of nature - but it had hollowed out my car while I'd been inside that house, so I knew it still had to be near.
I hit the main road at the suburb entrance with a sigh of relief. My pounding heart, burning lungs, and tired legs urged me to rest, so I kneeled under a dim orange streetlight for a moment, and stared back at the hollow neighborhood with wide eyes. Nothing moved, as far as I could tell.
As I began to recover my energy - still wondering if I hadn't just had a delusional episode - I felt the hair on the back of my neck begin to stand up, as if my animal instincts were trying to warn me of some unknown danger. I peered closer at the dark suburb, scanning the shadows, until a thought occurred to me…
Shot through by terror, I tore off my shirt and threw it on the pavement.
There, on the back of my shirt, illuminated by the dim orange streetlight overhead, sat several crawling insects of a horrific kind I'd never seen. Four inches wide each, shaped like spiky coins, and jet black, they resembled some sort of oversized nightmarish tick. I watched in disgust as one shot forth a serrated proboscis and attempted to pierce through the fabric… only to hit the pavement below.
I took off running again, slapping and hitting myself at every little sensation on my skin, terrified that those otherworldly ticks had found me again.
I did get away, but I doubt I will ever be able to sit still again. Every time I feel a prickle, every time my hair stands on end… I fear it will be those hollow ticks again, creeping down the back of my neck, crawling along my skin… I have nightmares that I'll feel one tiny little stab, and then another, and then another… before a sense of pulling and lightness wells up in me; my blood, tissues, and organs being vacuumed out and consumed… by hundreds of tiny little mouths, indiscriminately hungry… thousands of tiny little pincers strong enough to consume flesh, wood, and metal alike…
The thing that still haunts me, even days later, is the fact that nobody's noticed. There's at least one entire false suburb sitting out there - all appearance, no substance - and nobody has raised an alarm. There haven't been any articles, or radio alerts, or police actions. Worse still, is the fact that I would risk being thought insane to report it myself… but I can't find my way back to that particular suburb.
They all look the same…