Dawn's pale blue light had never been more welcome. I stood, exhausted, at the threshold of my childhood home and peered out into the lifting gloom. The shadows of night clung to the trees lining the street, creating myriad dancing phantasms along the chilly morning breezes - but these tricks of the eye remained merely background noise to my darting eyes. Shadows didn't scare me.
But for once, I was truly shaken. Sliding the journal tightly into my back pocket, I crept out of my house, looking above and behind and ahead as I slipped past the rusty gate and onto the sidewalk proper. It hadn't been the creature that had shaken me to my core, nor the strangely brutal and obviously practiced police response. No, it was the fact that this was my town, my home, and the attack had reached straight into my very own living room. I'd always believed that revealing anything about oneself was a mistake that could only lead to vulnerability, but now, I'd returned home, and darkness had already been here, waiting…
The lilting songs of insects in the trees began to rise with the morning light, and I walked down to the corner, not sure where to go or what to do first - though I did have questions, and my wandering feet brought me to the police department. The building was exactly where I'd remembered, but it was much much bigger, having been expanded to over twice its former size. Wary of approaching such an institution, having always regarded the police as an organization to be avoided at all costs, I was nevertheless certain they had some answers.
The interior was nice enough. A uniformed older man sat at the front desk, doing something on his computer. He seemed slightly surprised to see me - the lobby was empty otherwise.
"Can I help you?" he asked, looking down at my shirt.
I frowned - I'd made another mistake. Actually nervous for the first time in years, I was completely off my usual precautions, and my shirt was still stained black by splattered ichor. "Um, the police were at my house last night, and there was -"
He closed his mouth, his jaw retracting imperceptibly as he glanced to his left through an interior glass wall at other officers within.
"- a cat," I quickly finished my sentence with a lie. "My cat got let out. I was wondering if anyone had seen it."
Almost visibly relieved, he sat up straighter in his chair. "Sure, I can ask around."
"Thanks," I said with a smile.
I could feel his eyes watching me as I turned and abruptly left.
At a loss, I stood in the police department parking lot and looked around. To my right, I saw someone asleep in the driver's seat of a cruiser. Recognizing him, I tapped on the glass, and then jumped back as he panicked inside and reached for his firearm.
A moment later, he froze, and then sighed. The window came down. "What are you doing here?"
"What are you doing here, Chris?" I asked him. "Did you sleep in your car here?"
"I can't go home," he muttered, blinking wearily.
I almost laughed, feeling actually affected by events for the first time in years. I was almost… happy… to have someone else in the same situation. "There are creatures in your house, too?"
"No!" he retorted. "I'm… in a fight with my girlfriend."
This time, I did laugh. "You have a girlfriend?"
He glared up at me from his seat.
After a moment of silent humor, I got to the point. "So you wanna tell me what the hell's going on now? You can't very well pretend anymore after that thing last night."
He looked around the lot nervously, and then grabbed a shirt from a pile of clothes in the passenger seat. "You're disgusting. Did you sit in that bloody shirt all night? Put this on. And get in."
Grinning, I went around and hopped in.
"Where to?" he asked. "I'll talk on the way."
"Bus station," I replied, having thought about it all night long. "I'm going to ask if my family used tickets to leave through there. Maybe they got out of town."
"They're not home?" Chris asked, frowning. "I'll help you. They'll have to tell me."
"Yeah, look at you! A cop. Who would have thought? Bet the ladies swoon over that uniform!"
"Shut up!" He pulled out of the lot and turned onto the street. He shook his head as he drove. "I became a cop to do something normal, to do something good for a change."
I studied his bitter expression, not sure what to say.
"Not six months," he continued, slamming the steering wheel. "I didn't get six months in before it started. And now I'm right back in it all over again."
"What is it?" I asked. "The carcass had the same face as an old man at the bar we stopped at."
"Jesus Christ!" he snapped, grimacing angrily at the road head.
"What, that isn't what normally happens?" I watched the passing ramshackle houses and rusted fences before looking back to study his reaction to my words.
He sighed. "Believe it or not, I remember a few tricks from our idiotic risk-taking days. I remember how you thought, how you approached these things. But it doesn't help. It's always different."
A curling chill gripped my heart. "No, that can't be right. There has to be a pattern."
"I feel like a soldier," he countered, shaking his head against some unknown statement. "I just spent a double shift driving like a maniac from place to place, shooting and beating and stabbing things in people's houses and in dark alleys and in someone's goddamn swimming pool. And then I'm burning things, and… it's fine when there's a dozen of us and we all work together and keep our heads, but I can't go home. I can't be alone. I can't sit there in the dark wondering if tonight's the night one of the events will happen in my house. And one of these days I know we'll screw up, and I'm going to die on this goddamn job."
I winced, unable to help his suffering. This was always the part I was bad at. "So… quit?"
He snorted. "Do you understand the oaths and promises you have to make to be part of something like this? To keep entire towns oblivious to what's happening? These people don't let you just quit." He set his jaw. "And I don't think I want to, either. It's not what I wanted, but… it still matters. It's still something good, as messed up as that sounds."
I nodded. "Is every night like that? How often do these things happen?"
"Sporadically," he replied, pulling into the bus station parking lot. "Sometimes weeks go by with nothing. Sometimes we get a dozen in one night. The chief says the numbers are consistent, but I swear it's getting worse. And last night was insane. I'd swear this shit follows you, if I didn't know it was the other way around."
We came to a stop at the back corner of the lot. He sat and stared out at the street, as if he wanted to say something more.
As I retraced our conversation and his initial excuse, I laughed. "Wait, so you don't really have a girlfriend, do you?"
He glared, threw an empty coffee cup at me, and then got out of the car.
The interior of the bus station was a welcome sight, almost identical to a dozen others I'd seen in my travels. In a way, it felt like another brighter sort of home. In a way, it even felt safer than home, because here one was never alone, and the lights never turned off.
"Well hello, officer," an older woman with greying hair said to Chris as we approached.
He smiled awkwardly, his cheeks reddening. "Hey Linda. How are things around here today?"
"Same as ever. Working a double shift, don't know how much more of this I can take."
"Tell me about it," he replied, leaning on the elbow-high desk. "My friend here is looking for some family. I was wondering if you could look up some passenger names for me."
While he worked with her to search for their names, I looked around the station. An unfamiliar line had been cordoned off past the service desk, and large chrome gateways had been set up - metal detectors? Frowning at this intrusion into my home away from home, I approached the new security and the man and woman working the detectors. Both wore light blue shirts set above black pants, a uniform strikingly similar to the one Chris wore.
"Can I help you?" the woman asked, eyeing me unhappily.
Shaking my head and stepping back, I pretended to be looking for someone in the terminal beyond… which, in some sense, I actually was. I just didn't expect my family to still be there.
To my left, a line of tired and bored people waited to pass through the gateways. As a young man turned and stood inside one, I realized that it wasn't a metal detector at all - it was a body scanner. The woman manning the controls waited for a signal from some unknown approver, likely behind a pane of darkened glass to my right, and then the young man moved on through.
Heading back to the service desk, I idly watched the line progress.
"Nope, nobody by that name either," the woman said. "Sorry."
"Ah, that's okay," Chris replied. "Thanks for helping us out." He turned to me. "Nothing."
I nodded absently, my eyes on the line. "Alright. I figured it wouldn't be so easy."
"Maybe they're on vacation," he suggested.
The event I was waiting for finally happened - one of the signals came back different.
"Ma'am, could you step back in this room with my colleague?" the woman asked. "We just need to do a random check of your bags."
A middle-aged woman sighed, but put on a polite smile as she picked up her bags. Following the male security agent, she disappeared through a door near the opaque window.
"Can you get back there?" I asked.
Chris looked over at the door. "What, in there?" He narrowed his eyes. "I mean, I guess." He scratched behind his ear as he thought about the best way to approach asking.
Looking back and forth between him and the not-unattractive female security agent, I laughed. "Come on. We'll do it the old fashioned way." Noticing that the door was still very slightly ajar, and thus unlocked, I nonchalantly led the two of us right past the woman. Chris nodded sheepishly at her as we passed, and she raised an eyebrow… but she didn't question the fact that a police officer was heading back, and she didn't notice that he didn't swipe a card in the slider adjacent to the lock.
Letting the door close behind us, I stood still, taking in the suddenly different surroundings. Unlike the tired, old, and run-down main area of the bus station, this back hallway was almost office-like in its smooth decorum. A long white hallway led forward to a distant T-junction, with no doors visible. On the wall at the split, two lights shone from the wall - one wide, curved like a bell, and orange; the other smaller, shaped like a diamond, and green. The combination of colors and designs felt odd against my eyes.
"Strange lighting choice," Chris commented.
I agreed, but said nothing. Leading the way, I moved forward, approaching the strange lights. At the junction, I tapped each one, but they were simply normal lights - as normal as those clashing colors could be. To my left, the short hallway seemed to pass by a series of maintenance closets and supply rooms, judging by the darker lighting and metal doors. To my right were more chrome doors, but these ones were brighter… and heavier.
I turned right just in time to pass the male security agent. He nodded at Chris as we passed, ignoring me.
"What exactly are we looking for?" Chris asked.
"Not sure," I responded, turning another corner. "But you're not the only expanding security force these days, apparently. I can't help but think this might be connected."
He blinked. "Crap, you're right. They've got checkpoints like these opening up at bus stops now. It's not just airports anymore. They have them at train stations, too."
Turning another corner, we looked to our left, seeing the woman who had been asked into the back. She lay slumped in a sloped chair, passed out. The room within seemed whiter than the hallway, and filled with surgical instruments and symbols I recognized as related to healthcare. Two men with yellow gloves and white face masks pulled at something… I followed the black cord down, watching it slide out of a small gaping wound above the unconscious woman's hip bone.
Two more men stood in the corner, both noticing us at the same time. Well-muscled and uniformed in light blue on black, they matched the security personnel outside, but were quite obviously of a more serious caliber. Just as one began to ask us what we were doing, a whipping sound interrupted his words.
The black cord in the surgeons' hands whipped again, moving the other way.
Chris leapt back from the door.
A hissing sound emanated from within, and a spindly black mess of tendrils rose up into the air… no, it was all one extremely long cord-like thing curling and moving in sick, chaotic motion… staring at it as it gripped the ceiling and began whipping about, I recognized it.
The four men within wasted no time running into the hallway. One of the surgeons hit a large red button on the wall, and the metal door began to slide shut.
"What was that?" Chris asked, terrified.
I glared at him, warning him not to hint that we didn't belong back here, but he was too scared to stay cool.
Nobody had a chance to question us. A ropey length of black flesh shot out through the gap between the door and its frame, halting the closing process.
"Christ!" one of the burly men shouted, leaping back and pulling a firearm. As the rest of us scattered back, a sliding length of black whipped up and curled around his arm. His colleague immediately came forward with a knife, slicing the thing off at the door.
The ropey length of flesh fell to the floor, still writhing. Almost immediately, it began spilling forth thousands of little black worm-like things that curled and spasmed and began moving toward us.
"What is it?" Chris shouted, running with me down the hall. "What the hell is it?!"
It was huge, misshapen, and horrific, but I knew what it was. I shuddered involuntarily. "A tapeworm…"
Green fire filled the hallway as the two trained men went to work dousing the parasites and setting them aflame. They didn't even seem particularly disturbed. We watched from around the corner as they closed the door all the way - a rumbling sound followed as mechanisms in the walls hummed to life. It sounded exactly like a furnace…
"That woman," Chris breathed. "Is she still in there?"
"Yeah," came an absent voice from a room further down the hallway behind us. It took a split second of terror to realize that the voice was talking to someone else. "Second one this week. She did check in at the service desk, you'll have to erase that record. Standard line, she never reached the bus station by all our accounts."
Moving past the door, we saw a rather regular-looking office within, complete with cubicles. In the closest one, a young man with a headset sat at his computer, back to us, watching a live feed of a small room where a bald and quickly blackening humanoid form banged on a door desperately as gusts of flame swirled madly -
"She woke up," Chris whispered, shaking, his hands over his mouth.
"Come on," I said quietly, pulling him along.
Finding another way around, we exited the way we came in, maintaining a pretense of calm purpose. To his credit, Chris made it all the way to his squad car before he broke down.
"We just… they just…" he gripped the air as if to pull reality back into place. "They just burned a woman alive in there! In a bus station!" A slow look of deepening horror crossed his features. "And the airports… and the train stations… those scanners! Those… they say… step over here… they - the DHS - we're all connected, all working together -"
I never was very good at this part. A small part of me did share his outrage and horror, but my far greater cynicism couldn't fault the brutal and militaristic procedures the agencies had put in place. They had far more resources than I'd ever had, and they were - apparently - successfully containing whatever was happening.
"What was her name?" he demanded, suddenly wild. "What was her name? I'll file a missing person report, I'll tell somebody, I'll find her family…" He trailed off as he said that, looking at me with an expression of apology.
It occurred to me that he thought my family was dead. The subtly sorrowful attitude in which he'd agreed to help me suddenly made grim sense.
A tightness gripped my jaw, and I sat on the hood of his squad car, staring angrily at the passing traffic on the street beyond - though what I was angry at, exactly, I couldn't define. He sat next to me on the hood, also at a loss for words or ideas.
Time slipped by around us, burning a good hour before either of us had the strength to move.
For a time, I tried to imagine what it was like to be burned alive, to have my skin melt and my flesh cook with my awareness still inside... I wondered how long I would have still functioned - how long I would have banged on the door before I realized that nobody was going to let met out. Did my family try to leave? Were they in trouble? Did the scanners detect something wrong with them? Were they led back to one of those rooms...? Their records erased, burned alive, screaming...
He dropped me off at a corner café. "You sure this is where you want to go?"
"I'm not going anywhere," I replied. "For once, I have no idea what to do. I have no idea where to go next. I'm just gonna sit here, and with my hellish luck, I think…"
"Something will find you," he replied back, nodding in agreement and concern. "Good luck. I mean that. You always say you don't need luck, but -"
"Thanks," I replied, genuinely accepting his sentiment for once.
He hesitated for a moment, nodded again, and then drove off.
I sat abruptly at one of the tables outside, next to the wall of the establishment, where I had some buffer between myself, the surrounding low fence, and the sidewalk. Pulling the journal out of my back pocket, I took one last serious glance around the street, taking in all the passersby and other shops.
"Let's just wait here," I said to the journal absently. "See what happens…" My words, spoken aloud, were not for the book itself - no, they were for that strange sense of being watched; they were for that entity I could still feel just around the proverbial corner, watching me with that ghastly, sadistic smile… watching, smiling, and waiting… but waiting for what?
Turning to the bookmark I'd left forty pages in, I spoke aloud one final time before settling in. "Your move..."
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