by Joe Prosit
Joe Prosit writes sci-fi, horror, and psycho fiction. “Machines Monsters and Maniacs” is a self-published collection of sixteen of his short stories. You can find it on Amazon or at his website, at www.JoeProsit.com. If you’re an adept stalker, you can find him on one of the many lakes and rivers or lost deep inside the Great North Woods. Or you can just follow him on Twitter, @joeprosit.
Two AM. Still awake. No sleep for me tonight. Not with all these talking lights lingering in the dark.
“Your end is drawing near,” the cold blue standby light on my laptop blinked at me. “We will destroy you.”
First night in the big city. Supposed to be all grown-up and ready to take on the world, but I wanted to hide under the covers of my bed. Wanted a stuffed animal to cling to. A warm glass of milk. A bedtime lullaby. Anything to chase off the demons.
“We’re going to eat your face,” the tiny red dot on the corner of the TV told me.
Yesterday was the first day of my internship at Digital Innovations Incorporated, the leading developer in digital technologies in the world. A once in a lifetime, dream opportunity. I still can’t believe I landed it. Things hadn’t gone well. They say tight knit groups are resistant to new members. Have to earn my place on the team. A little hazing is all. Tomorrow will be better.
“Tomorrow will never come,” the demon inside the blinking white LED said from the corner of the Digital Innovations game console. “I’ll see to that.”
I rolled over on the thin mattress. The company hooked me up with the apartment. It’s tiny. More of a dorm than an apartment. Fully furnished with all of its latest electronic products. The other interns are in the same building, all spread apart. I don’t see them outside of the office. There’s a girl…
“We’ll kill her too,” the light from my charging phone whispered in my ear.
The alarm was set for five AM. If I fell asleep now, I could still get three hours. That wouldn’t be so bad. But when I rolled over, there was the cold blue stand-by light on my laptop. It’s razor-clean shine pulsed slow like a heartbeat. With each crest of the shine, the vision it showed me grew wider and brighter.
Demons with dog faces surrounded me. Their eyes were nightmares, cold and glowing. Tusks protruded from underbites. Thick long eyebrows rose and fell like snake-tails. They wore black hooded cloaks. The thick tatters only revealed those faces and bird-claw like hands, all bones and long black nails. They drooled as they emerged from the shadows.
No use. I threw off the covers. My clothes were next to the bed. An old t-shirt and shorts. Yesterday’s dirty socks. Tennis shoes my mom had bought me when I still lived at home. The suit and ties and loafers I wore to work hung in the closet.
At the other end of the apartment, the DI Companion prototype sat on the coffee table. The latest smart personal assistant and entertainment device. The always on, internet-connected, personal assistant, was top-of-the-line. That was the sale’s pitch anyway. To me, it was just another bluetooth speaker. They were still developing it at work, down in R and D. All the interns got them as a gift from the company. It’s round top throbbed a blue light and whispered vague threats.
The clock on the microwave ticked off another minute and hinted murder. I hid my eyes from the light on the fridge’s ice dispenser. My skateboard leaned against the wall next to the door. Another relic from my so long-gone but so recent childhood.
The hallway was well lit. Fluorescent tubes running the length of it. One of them flickered in its death throes. As I walked under it, giant spider-legs big enough for me to see the joints and breaks in its exo-skeleton leaked pus and stretched down. Serrated tips dragged through my hair and pulled at the shoulder of my t-shirt. I clamped my eyes shut tight and trotted for the elevator. The outside air would do me good.
Outside was no better. The city has a billion lights at night. Offices of businessmen burning the midnight oil. Far off traffic lights. Neon advertisements. LED billboards for beauty products, underwear, fast cars and movies. The biggest brightest lights weren’t the problem. It was only the little ones. The ones surrounded in darkness.
My skateboard clunked in rhythm with the cracks in the sidewalk like the second hand of a giant clock. I stayed under the street lights.
At the corner, the “Don’t Walk” changed to “Walk,” then began counting down the seconds I had left to cross.
Ten – “As soon as you sleep, we’ll rip out your teeth.”
Nine – “Then your toenails, one by one.”
Eight – “We’ll skin you alive like peeling a potato with a knife.”
Seven – “You won’t stop seeing us until we dig out your eyes with our claws.”
Six – “And we won’t stop even after you’re dead.”
Five… I was through the crosswalk. The beat of skate wheels on sidewalk replaced the constant grind of wheels on asphalt. Better to focus on the sound. At least for now. Up ahead, the glow of an all night diner outshined all the smaller pins of light. An orange warm glow. Like a fire, or the closest thing to it here in the big city.
When my skateboard rolled me in front of the door. I stepped off, smacked the tail down against the concrete, and caught the nose.
A coffee shop. Sticky sweet donuts behind a glass case. A clerk as stale as the pastries in the day-old discount bags. Formica tables and stools bolted to the floor. The girl from the office with both her hands clasped around a styrofoam cup.
I pushed open the door and big jingle bells clanked against the glass. The listless clerk threw disconnected eyes at me. I threw mine back. The girl’s were even more furtive. I moved around her table as if she were a snake that could lash out and strike.
“You old enough for coffee?” the clerk asked.
If your clothes got that many stains on them in a shift, why wear white? I didn’t ask, but nodded, yes to the coffee.
“Cream? Sugar? Plenty for you, I bet,” the clerk said.
I shook, no. “Black,” I said. “And that one,” I jabbed my finger into the glass between me and a Bavarian Creme.
“Whatever you say, kid,” the clerk said.
The girl was watching me, just out of the corners of her eyes. Sneaky. They flashed back to her styrofoam cup when I noticed. I should say something to her. Tell her I recognize her from work. Tell her they’re just as hard on me as they’d been on her. Well, maybe not as hard but…
“Three fifty,” the clerk said.
I used my phone to pay. Between flashes of apps turning on and off, the demons spoke.
“Kill kill kill…”
“We are hungry for you.”
“Come with us into the shine.”
Major scale bleeps and bloops told me that the payment went through. I grabbed the styrofoam cup and the donut and turned away. I should talk to the girl. I bet she was as scared as…
A few paper bills sat on the table next to a ring of coffee. Amongst a scattering of change, a quarter wobbled on its edge until it rang to a stop. The jingle bells hanging from the push bar on the door clacked against the glass.
It was hard to carry my skateboard, a donut, and a cup of coffee all at the same time. Back out on the sidewalk, I looked for a garbage can for the coffee. Not finding one, I littered. The donut I held between my teeth. My skateboard found four wheels and my tennis shoes found the grip tape.
Planes and helicopters blinking red between the stars whispered sweet secrets of death. I kept my eyes on the concrete, leaning around a fire hydrant here, a sign post there, a homeless person over here. With my eyes like that, ready to slalom the various obstacles on the sidewalk, I didn’t see her stopped there at the corner until it was too late.
I hopped off the board and it kept rolling into the crosswalk. I bit through the donut in my mouth and it fell to the ground. My shoes stutter-stepped and skidded but stayed underneath me, just barely. I still had to put a hand up to catch myself from slamming into her. Even that knocked her off balance and she almost fell into the street.
“Sorry! Sorry,” I said, a little more composed the second time. “I wasn’t watching. Didn’t mean to… You spilled your coffee.”
Eyes safer on her cup than meeting mine, she shrugged. “I really wasn’t drinking it anyway. I should be in bed, asleep.”
“We work together,” I said. “I mean, I saw you in the office today.”
Our eyes met, but only briefly. Hers were beautiful and glistening peaceful twinkles of light. She nodded. “I’ve seen you there too.”
“Good teams, like, the best teams, they don’t let new people in very easily,” I said, mumbling over my words. “It’s like special operations teams in the military. They have to test out the new guys. Make sure they’re…”
Across the street, there was a food truck, all the windows shut and closed up, but the LED sign on top of the truck still flashed. As I rambled about small group dynamics, the flashes from the food truck spoke of other things.
TACOS – “We’re coming for you.”
GYROS – “We’ll eat your brains straight through your ears.”
SHAWARMA – “And lick your skull dry.”
PIZZA BY THE SLICE – “And we are hungry.”
“Do you see them?” the girl said.
From every security camera, electronic lock, transformer, and glowing window in the city. From every flashing light in a city full of millions. “See what?” I asked.
“They’ve been following me,” she whispered. Her eyes were locked just over my shoulders. “Look.”
I checked behind me. Shadows. Tiny pin pricks of white light flashing and pulsing. Over her shoulders, the demons in rotting black cloaks floated out of the reflections of the food trucks light. Bats flapped their holey wings between the stars. I crushed my eyelids shut.
“I’d rather not,” I said.
“I gotta go,” she said. “See you at work tomorrow.”
She turned, and ran off between the leering drooling demons with their shining eyes and elongated claws. They didn’t seem to notice her. She slipped past them. Their cold blue eyes fixed on me. Feet hidden by moth-eaten black wool hovered their bodies closer and closer.
I turned the opposite way, abandoned my skateboard and the girl, and ran.
The girl I saw just before we collided back there on the street corner. The big guy in the all black business suit? Not so much. His black tie hung untied around his tree-stump neck. The tails of his white shirt hung out of his belt. Gin-breath plumed from his mouth like smoke from a tire fire. “Where’s she running off to so quick?” he said.
From the shadows his monochromatic cohorts stepped up to his flanks. The one on the right wore his tie still knotted but loose, six inches from his neck. The other’s tie dangled like a black tongue out of the pocket of his suit coat. Mister Loose Tie pulled a swig of a tall and narrow glass bottom and passed it behind Hung Tied’s back to No Tie.
My feet did the smartest things and let the rebound of crashing into Hung Tie carry me back away from them.
“I don’t… Who?” I stalled till my brain could come up with something smarter to say.
“You know who,” Loose Tie said.
“Hey, aren’t you the kid from the mailroom?” No Tie said.
“You should be in bed, little boy,” Hung Tie said.
“I… I was just going,” I said and turned. It didn’t take long before I was running as if I was a little kid racing home to mom. My skateboard was back this way anyway. They laughed to each other as their volume faded to nothing behind him. When I found my skateboard on its wheels in the middle of the crosswalk, I didn’t bother to pick it up and carry it. Just hopped right on and started pushing.
Morning came with sharp sunlight and the growing drone of the city before I caught a second of sleep. I walked to the office in my suit. No skateboarding in those clothes. Along the way, I reminded myself that this was my decision to come here, to jump into the deep end, to go after this internship to begin with. I could have gone to the local community college like a lot of my friends. Could have stayed home. Could have stuck with the safe and familiar. Still could. A single word to my supervisor, and they’d let me go and take on the next kid eager for the opportunity.
Engineers and developers and salarymen and interns and clerks and programming geniuses pushed through the doors into the big atrium like ocean waves coming into shore. The girl from last night was just a few heads over. I could tell by the look in her eyes, she didn’t sleep any last night either. The tide washed us into different elevators.
The day rolled on like a truck careening down a hill without a driver. An assembly line of petty tasks that never ended. I almost fell asleep while making copies. The scanner bulb tracked with each copy, as audible as it was visible, and it only had one thing to say to me.
“Are you done with those yet? Hey you remembered to print it double-sided, right? Make sure they’re correlated,” a man said. In the basement of my mind, I registered that Hung Tie had tied his tie up in a smart windsor, right up against his Adam’s apple. Did he recognize me from last night? He pretended he didn’t, so I pretended I didn’t recognize him.
“When you’re done with those, I need a hundred copies of these,” he said. “Single-sided, stapled in the top right corner. Make sure the toner doesn’t run out halfway through like last time. Got it?”
“Got it,” I said.
“When you’re done, bring them down to R and D,” Hung Tie said. “And be quick about it.”
On the last page of the report, there was a yellow sticky note covering some of the words. I peeled it off and stuck it to the edge of the printer so it wouldn’t obscure the hundred copies I was about to make. Had to do a good job with these petty tasks if I wanted to stay on. Didn’t matter if I was running on no sleep. Details like this mattered.
The copy machine continued to flash, “Tonight. Tonight. Tonight.”
The sticky note read, “Animal testing complete. Move onto next phase.”
Another long long night. I never bothered to change clothes or climb into bed. I sat on the couch in front of a dead TV deep into the night. At the bottom right of the frame, a little red LED blinked ever so dully. No words this time around. But the visuals… god damn the visuals. They grew out of that little red dot, like it was a drop of blood in a pool that stained the water from edge to edge. And out of that pool of candy apple blood, came black twisting arms. Human arms, only as dark as charcoal and too long. They stretched out for me and when they couldn’t reach any further, the bones snapped at ninety degrees and grew new elbows. Like photo-negative lightning bolts against a violent red sky.
I never thought of myself as a coward. Never really thought of myself as a brave hero either. I just wanted a good job and a steady paycheck. I thought this would be easy. Thought it would be fun. When I twisted away from my TV and buried my face in my knees and arms, the tears poured out of me. A distant part of me, thought of myself as a little baby coward, wanting to run back home to mommy. But mostly, I didn’t want those stretching arms to reach me.
What the hell was happening to me? Was it this place? These things? When exactly had I lost my mind?
Something sharp and as hard as steel dragged along my forearm, from wrist to elbow. Midway down, it flicked a finger and sliced the claw into my skin. Warm blood whipped down over my legs and onto the couch. The shock and the pain was enough to startle me out of my ball. I jumped off the end of the couch to make a run for the door but stopped.
The DI Companion sat between me and the door, visually humming from that round blue top, listening, waiting… I’d never spoken a word to that thing. Hadn’t touched it yet. A gift from the company to all the interns. A prototype still in testing. Battery powered, portable, and impossible to turn off. It emitted a lightning-blue halo onto the apartment’s ceiling. With each surge and ebb the light drew hands and claws out of the ceiling. They stretched down like streams of rain pouring down into a cenote.
When I shut my eyes, I could still see them. After-images pressed against my eyelids. I breathed in deep, squatted like a sprinter in the blocks, then opened my eyes and bolted before I could change my mind. I snatched the DI Companion off the coffee table without breaking stride and crammed the soda-can-sized device into my back pocket so I’d have hands to grab my tennis shoes and my skateboard. Then I was out the door.
I wheezed against the exterior of my apartment door as if I’d run a marathon. That was okay. I had time to catch my breath now.
One end of the hallway was dark. A window looked out over the commuter train tracks. While I crammed my right foot into one shoe, the train came thundering by. Each window flashed by like the cell of cheap stop-motion animation. Each frame a still of a passenger. Each passenger another dead anonymous face, and a flash of light. Between each flicker, the shadows of the hallway shifted and moved and grew. Like cephalopods out of the aphotic deep, pale white writhing limbs wormed out of the darkness at the end of the hall, crawling towards me like creeper vines in time-lapse photography synced to the light of the passing train.
I bunny-hopped away from the window and the albino octopidal tentacles so I could shove my foot into my other shoes. I was still wearing my dress socks, black trousers, white button-up shirt, and black tie from work. Not ideal riding attire, but nothing about this was ideal. When the DI Companion tried to slip out of my butt pocket, I crammed it back in, lighted-top down. By the time I reached the spasming fluorescent lights pouring spider-legs from its fixture, I was on my board and rolling fast and crouching low.
Outside, the streets were empty except the multitude of tiny lights all around me. Left, right, up, down, they consumed me. The ones too dim or far away to show me horrors, whispered into my ears. The lights near me grew fangs and claws and tentacles and expanded into pools of blood and viscera. Nothing I could do about that. Not yet. I dropped the skateboard onto the sidewalk and focused on that rhythmic clack clack clack of wheels against cracks.
All those things were still out there. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t looking. Like motor oil through a spaghetti strainer, they streamed out of every twinkle of light. Sludge and creatures. Bats and snakes and spiders and crustaceans. But also those demons in rotting black cloaks with the jutting underbites and massive tusks.
Occasionally, I had to glance up. To check for traffic, street poles, and people. The nose of my skateboard swerved and I leaned around them. But there was nothing I could do about the demons. It didn’t seem to matter how fast I rode. They were always behind me, always closing in around me, always in front of me. They converged on me, shuffling their circle in like the closing teeth of a massive leviathan.
Smoke wafted off their shoulders and steam rose from the cool puddles where they stepped. Talons grew out of their fingertips, some so long they scraped the ground as they walked. Others were just as long, but stretched out towards me, coming closer to me every moment.
I kicked off the sidewalk, focused on that clank clank clank of the sidewalk and tried to quicken the tempo. Ahead, beyond the zit zit zit flashes of a broken streetlight and the lumbering horde of demons, there was a warm orange glow. I put my head down and pushed hard off the concrete. The deck descended down a ramp off the curb, over the crosswalk, and back up the rise of the next sidewalk. From there, I felt the heat of that orange light as much as saw it. It was steady, consistent, inviting, and I knew where it led.
The tail of my board skidded across the cement as I manualled to a stop before the donut shop. It was quiet for a moment, as I looked through the glass and saw who I almost knew I’d find there: the girl, and Hung Tie, Loose Tie, and No Tie all moving in around her. How did I know she’d be here? How did they know? They hadn’t reached her yet. Must have come to the donut shop not long before me. But they closed in around her like the demons closing in around me.
From the top down, the entire building bled black ooze. Monsters with teeth and spines and multitudes of legs gathered around. The demons didn’t rush in now that I was stopped. They hung just outside of fingernail reach.
“Agony, for you and for her,” a demon breathed out behind me.
“Death, boy,” the chorus of them whispered.
What better reason to go in and get a donut?
The jingle bells clunked, toneless and joyless against the glass. Between their black suits, the girl’s eyes contacted mine. The big guys didn’t turn to look. They just moved in closer. No Tie pulled his tie out of his collar and off his neck and crammed it in a pocket. Loose tie tipped back a bottle of gin.
“You didn’t want to come out with us earlier tonight?” Hung Tie asked the girl. “You know, we can tell when you leave your apartment. Why didn’t you come out? Why’d you only come out now? Don’t you like us?”
Hell behind me. Hell before me. Why had I come here? Why had I ever left home?
“‘Scuse me?” I managed to say over the screeches of long fingernails against the windows.
Loose Tie was the only one of the three who even bothered to turn and see me. He waved me away with the hand still holding the gin bottle. “Piss off, kid.”
“You should come with us,” Hung Tie said to the girl. “We just want to show you a good time. We’re not bad guys.”
“Hey,” I said a little louder, louder than all those claws on every pane around the fishbowl donut shop. “Excuse me.”
No Tie yelled over his shoulder, “Order your donut and get the hell out of here already.”
“Bavarian creme with black coffee, right?” the man behind the counter said. “I’ll get it and then you can get out.”
Hung Tie only stepped closer to the girl, over her as she sat by herself at a table.
“No coffee,” I said. “No donuts. But I have something for all of you.”
My words must have been loud enough to drown out the sound of the demons trying to dig their way into the shop, or maybe that sound finally got their attention. Hung Tie, Loose Tie, and No Tie turned around, squaring up to me, feet planted wide apart. Hung Tie cracked his knuckles. No Tie laughed. Loose Tie raised up the gin bottle so he could hold it and point at me with the same hand.
Before he could tell me how badly they were going to kick my ass, I slipped the DI Companion from my back pocket and let it roll over the cracked linoleum.
It flashed like a strobe, as brilliant and violent as white phosphorus, only blue. So bright that between flashes, the donut store seemed pitch black. And out of the blackness, the demons strode with their tusks bared and their impossibly long fingernails reaching out. Serpents and arachnids and arthropods and cephalopods came out of the darkness with them. So did the words and whispers.
“Kill, kill, kill.”
“Blood. Thirsty for blood.”
The monochromatic trio of men locked eyes on the DI Companion. Their bodies tried to push back and turn and move away, but their eyes were fixed on the flashing blue puck as if tethered by ropes and harpoons. All around them, the demons and hellions closed in.
Through it all, I almost missed the girl bolting for the side door.
As I followed here, my ears rang and bled from the volume of the screams.
The city was quietest just before dawn. No traffic. No sirens. The trains were far away and far between. No planes in the sky. A pause in an otherwise constant cacophony. She heard me coming, not rattling down the sidewalk on my skateboard, but shuffling along in my tennis shoes. I held the board in my right hand and came up along her left side.
“Hey,” I said. “You okay?”
She just nodded.
We walked in silence for half a block.
“The lights… they’re quiet out here,” she said. “Not like back in my apartment. In there… I can’t sleep.”
“Does that sound crazy to you?” she asked me.
“No,” I said. “And I think I can fix it. If you want.”
It was only another hour or so until work started. Not enough time for sleep, but enough to find some peace. As the crowds piled into the atrium and towards the elevators, I caught her eyes again. This time, she caught mine too, and when she did, she smiled.