Once or twice a year, starting about ten years ago, I’d be sitting on the couch or getting a drink in the kitchen or some other mundane activity, and a bat would fly by my head. It wasn’t usually a big deal—I’d close off as many rooms as possible, open all the windows, put on a hooded sweatshirt, tighten the hood over my head, then wrangle the bat with a sheet and corral it outside. To do this well, you need to get over your natural fear and watch the bat, not as you would an intruder, but as a pattern you must learn. If you’re successful, the movements become predictable, almost mathematical. I remember the first time I was comfortable enough to stand still in the middle of a room and visually trace a bat’s graceful arcs and loops around me. The panic I felt during the first few visits was replaced with a sense calmness and an appreciation of the animal that bordered on awe. How did a creature like this come to be? As you close the space between yourself and the bat, its loops around the room become more parabolic as it gives itself extra distance to turn and dodge. Even knowing what’s coming, there is a surprising artistry—a steely, but still acrobatic, determination hardwired into their movement. Evolution beautiful even in panic.
During that time, I only ever needed to get rabies shots once. A bat was in my bedroom while I slept, and I didn’t know until the next day. My morning began with the exhausted bat on the floor angrily chittering and squeaking at me. Bats have trouble taking off from the ground, so I had no choice but to groggily pick it up with a pair of oven mitts and throw it out the window to fly away. Rabies is almost invariably fatal, and most bats have small teeth so you might not feel or see a bite, which means that they recommend you get the shots if you’ve shared a bedroom with one, even if the odds of the bat actually being sick are small. I didn’t find out until later, when I called Health Services and the bat was long gone, that I was supposed to keep the bat so that they could kill it and open its head up to see if it was sick or not, and then I probably wouldn’t have needed the shots. It was good to know, but I don’t think I could have killed the frightened animal out of convenience. And the shots really weren’t that bad.
Earlier this year, for a reason unknown to me, the bats started coming more often. I didn’t notice it at first, but gradually them coming once or twice a year became every few months, became once or twice a month, became weekly. Being a creature of habit, I started planning for the intrusions. There was now a specific bat sweatshirt, a specific bat sheet, and also a specific order in which I opened the windows based on routes that the bats usually took. Bats like to land in places where they can hang—places that mimic their natural habitats—and I learned what curtains or pieces of art they liked most. I also learned that if I opened the hallway door that leads outside and forced a bat that way, it would feel the cool air and fly outside with minimal fuss. This made the incursions easier to handle, but it didn’t stop them from happening more and more often.
When bats started to come every day, and I had no choice but to call the exterminator. In many ways, I didn’t mind their presence, but having to remove them daily had grown into more than a minor annoyance. I also didn’t want to be the kind of person who was okay with bats regularly flying around their home. On the day the exterminator came, I showed him where I thought the bats were coming in, a small hole in the drywall next to a vent in my kitchen ceiling behind some cabinets. He plugged the hole, but said he’d need attic access, which I didn’t have, to really see what was going on. I didn’t see a reason to cut into the ceiling and begin what would be a much longer process. Maybe the hole being plugged would be enough. Despite the exterminator’s warnings about mold and disease and guano and damage, I thought putting a barrier between me and the bats would be enough.
I didn’t see a bat for several months, and I started to, if not miss them, at least find myself thinking of them while I lingered in quiet moments. I was unsure of what to do with all the calm, the lack of even the possibility of a bat, until one day a bat flew just above my head. I didn’t remember the last time one had managed to startle me. Acting on instinct, I followed my old plan and got a hoodie and sheet out and opened the windows and quickly got the bat outside. This happened periodically for a few days until one of the bats did something strange. Rather than keeping to its route and reacting in the way I’d grown accustomed to, it flew around my head for hours, avoiding my attempts to get it outside. It was as if it didn’t want to leave. The animal perched in unexpected places and the fluttering laps around the room that I’d grown to think of as beautiful and knowable in other bats, grew chaotic in this one. Most bats didn’t seem to change direction until they were near a wall or other obstacle, but this one zig-zagged and changed altitude with no discernible pattern. These movements hindered my ability to catch it, and this inability was more frustrating as the minutes, then hours, went by. When, through some combination of desperate flailing and luck, I finally got it caught in the sheet and shook it outside, it squealed angrily, then turned and tried to fly back in, violently hitting the window as I slammed it shut. It’s teeth and claws scraped and smacked the glass as I sat down on my couch and wondered what had made the bat act in such a way. I wondered if it was sick, or maybe just so frightened that it saw no recourse but to fight back somehow. I drifted off to sleep trying to find logic in the erratic behavior—trying to puzzle out some kind of clue that could allow me to understand what I’d seen.
Later that night, I woke up to scratching from behind my kitchen cabinets and knew what it was even as I went to investigate. Before this new infestation, back when the bats would only come once or twice a year, one had gotten stuck in a small gap behind the cabinets. Not knowing how else to get it out, I hurt the poor creature’s leg by pulling it out with pliers. When I realized I had hurt it, I let go immediately and dropped the pliers to the ground. The bat flew out of the kitchen and through the living room and into a hallway where it gripped the wall, one leg uselessly dangling from its body. I spent weeks furious at myself, replaying the image of the limp leg in my head. I wondered if the injury would affect its ability to roost. I pictured the useless limb dangling from its body and making it less aerodynamic or slapping into its body and alerting an insect that it was closing in on. I’d promised myself that I’d never hurt one again.
The bat that had woken me, like that previous one, was stuck in the narrow space between the back of the cabinets and the wall. It was too far behind the cabinets to get it out with anything else, so I went to my room, got a metal hanger, and untwisted it to make a hook on one end so I could pull the bat out from the crevice and into my waiting sheet. This was successful until the bat got stuck where the cabinet ends and extends toward the wall, forming a lip and narrowing the empty space. After a moment, the animal shifted, and I was able to pull it out with minimal trouble. Seemingly unharmed, I threw it outside and went back to sleep.
By the next day when I woke up, the bats had started to come every few hours, and the intervals seemed to be growing increasingly shorter. Another ended up behind the cabinets, which was strange since until the night before, it had only happened once in the past. I was able to get it close to the edge with the hook of the clothes hanger, but it kept getting stuck on the lip of the cabinet. It seemed to be clinging to it, not wanting to be caught. After an hour of trying to get it out, I decided that, despite my reluctance, I’d have to use pliers to drag it out by a leg. While I pulled it from the space, it screamed at me, a piercing mixture of anger and pain. I briefly thought of my promise not to hurt any more bats, now seemingly forgotten.
Resolving to wait things out for another day or two before calling the exterminator again, I invited a friend over to have some drinks and listen to music that night. I hadn’t left the house much and I thought that a familiar face would do me good, or at least distract me. Maybe he’d even have an idea about what to do or, failing that, could at least offer some empathy or commiseration. When he arrived, I poured him a whisky and put on a record before we sat down to catch up. After only a few minutes had passed, a bat appeared, and my eyes nervously watched it flit and fly around the room. I waited for my friend to react. The music wasn’t too loud, and the bat was close. Him not being able to see the animal as it came within inches of both of our heads didn’t seem plausible. I grew agitated, but anticipated him seeing the creature and panicking, maybe even spilling his drink—anything to let me know he had seen it. But he just went on telling me a story about a cousin or somebody he worked with or someone he went on a date with or something. What he talked about made no difference to me. I was transfixed—obsessed with watching the bat and obsessed with him not reacting to it. I started to pace, watching the bat out of the corner of my eye. After several trips back and forth, my friend asked if I was okay, and I gestured toward the bat. He looked for a moment, then turned back to me with a confused look on his face. When he asked what was wrong again, I had no answer. Instead, I said I was feeling sick, apologized, and rushed him out the door.
Alone, I caught the animal and got it outside after a brief struggle, but fresh bats continued to come and that, combined with the new difficulty in removing them, meant that a new bat arrived within minutes of me removing the previous one. Hours passed with me fighting to remove them, yet they arrived at even shorter intervals until they overlapped with each other and, after what must have been nearly a day of grappling with them, three or four would be with me at once. I could barely remove the bats quickly enough to hold an equilibrium and keep the room from filling with them. I tried to check the hole they had been coming in from before and discovered nothing—no new holes, no evidence of entry except the tops of my kitchen cabinets now soft with bat shit. The ammonia smell was overwhelming. I called the exterminator again. The phone just rang and rang.
Finally ready to abandon my home to the creatures, I began to think about what to bring. As I cut through the living room to go to the bedroom to pack, I made eye contact with a bat that was on the wall. It was unmistakable. I froze and watched it consider me, not as animals recognize other living things as living, but as humans do when they size each other up in an alley or a dark barroom. As it left the wall and flew across the room, I noticed that the dips in the flight of all the bats now lasted a half-second longer than they had, giving them extra time to scan their surroundings, their heads slowly turning and surveying the space around them—surveying me. There was no more panic in their movements, not even a lingering evolutionary fear. They acted as if they were fully in control of the situation, and maybe they were. I became certain that they were watching and testing me. Where they once tried to hide or hang behind curtains or art, they now would land against the wall, or hang from the blades of the ceiling fan in the center of the room. They stayed in the open, turning their heads to watch me. As I continued to watch, I became certain that these weren’t the same animals I’d been familiar with. But what were they?
I continued through the room to pack and escape, but the bats overwhelmed me. I tried to move around them, but they steered me in the opposite direction of the bedroom. Instead of me knowing their routes and behaviors and acting accordingly, they seemed to now be predicting my movements. When I began to move in a direction, they beat me to the spot, pushing me further and further from my goal. I tried to plan how to get around them based on which direction they flew in, but they broke their pattern the moment before I acted, not as a reaction, but as a premonition. I thought about opening a window, but they flew away from it and perched above the entry to the hallway, waiting and watching me walk toward the window they already knew I was about to open. Waiting between me and the bedroom. How could they know this? What could they be? I only knew now that they were some kind of monsters, some kind of tormentors, rather than the creatures I’d once found so much beauty in. They were no longer creatures of any kind.
It was in that moment of terror that I noticed the shadows. First, they were a deviation out of the corner of my eye, lost among all the other fleeting things that darkness holds, but then the edges of the room—the places where light doesn’t quite hit—began to watch me just as closely as the bats were. As I focused, the shadows become impressions of something recognizable, something alive. I tried to approach, but when I did, the faint images disappeared as if they were merely a trick of light—the shadow of a plant or a curtain moving in the breeze, or maybe the reflection of frenzied wings against the wall. Still, I knew something else was with me and the bats. The bats were briefly distracted, their eyes focused on the corner the shadows had disappeared into, and I was finally able to sprint down the hallway to the bedroom.
After frantically packing only a few necessities, I ran back down the hall. When I reached the living room, the shadows were once again there, but their hints of sentience had grown less opaque. The door to leave was just through the living room and on the other side of the kitchen, but bats now filled my field of vision, their screeches more than I could bear. And the shadows, seeming to respond, were no longer mere suggestions of figures. The tendrils of animated gloom I had seen now solidified into a figure, then two and three—their ashen bodies like inky cremations come to life. As I looked around, more and more of them manifested out of the dark. The bats in turn grew increasingly furious at the appearance of these beings. Caught in the middle of a swirling mass of wings and these charcoal bodies, I called to the shadows to ask what their purpose was. When they didn’t answer, I fought through the bats and walked toward the beings, now nearly face-to-face and begging them to tell me what their purpose was. Instead of answering, they receded back into the darkness, their bodies again losing definition. Dark ripples pulsed around the room, emanating from where they once stood. I felt a disorientating pressure in my head, then regained my focus to the sound of the bats. I walked to where the shadows once stood, but when I reached the edge of the room, they were gone, their exits invisible to me. The room as if they were never there.
I looked around to see if they had left any hints as to where they had gone or come from. I ran my hands over the walls and made a lap around the room and into the kitchen until I got to the front of the apartment and realized the front door was no longer there. I didn’t believe it. I continued walking and tracing the walls. I convinced myself I was just disoriented and that I must have just been in the wrong place—that the door was somehow close. No matter what room I was in, there should have been windows, though, and I realized that they were missing, too. At first, I refused to believe what I saw around me—little more than a series of connected walls with no openings to the outside world. The art and trinkets and bookcases I used to make the walls feel like home, now made the space close in around me even more. It couldn’t be true. What had the shadows done? My laps around the rooms grew increasingly frantic, my hands scratching at the walls as I searched for the door and windows that had been there minutes earlier. I wasn’t confused, though. All possible exits had ceased to exist. My legs grew weak, and I sat before I could faint. How long had it been since I had sat down?
I didn’t have long to consider this because even after the disappearance of the shadows, the swelling rage of the bats remained. Previously, they seemed to be strictly interested in causing me psychological anguish. After the shadows appeared, though, the loops of the bats began to end with purposeful raids toward me. Small scratches and bites lacerated my hands and, when there were too many bats to defend them, my neck and face. Seeming to be emboldened by both their success in harming me and a line they were unsure of crossing finally being broken through, more and more bats started to attack. Their sorties from around the room came from unpredictable angles, allowing them to avoid my attempts to defend myself. My injuries were small, but painful, and as they built up, my skin became soft and raw. Rivulets of blood ran down my arms and neck. The bats that weren’t attacking me flew around the room, their speed growing, some flew into the walls in a rage, their screams more an angry wail than the endearing chittering I had once enjoyed.
I stood up unsteadily, my hands scratching at the walls. Working my way to the hallway again, I went to a closet and found a hammer. I used it to break through the plaster and the lath behind it, but the hole led nowhere. Behind the wall was only a darkness I could see no end to. Desperation began to control my thinking and I made more and more holes that just led to more and more darkness. As the hours—or maybe days—passed, my mind kept drifting toward thoughts of violence. Every time I picked up the hammer, I thought about what its head meeting the body of one of the bats would feel like—the bat’s body first breaking against the steel, then a wall, then falling to the ground. When it became clear that the holes in the walls wouldn’t help, I smashed my kitchen cabinets, desperate to find where the monsters were coming from. Maybe it could also be an escape. Wood splintered across the room, and I pulled chunks of the cabinets down from the walls with now bleeding hands, but I found nothing. I tried to push it away, but I couldn’t get the idea of violence toward the bats out of my head. It was once a terrible thought, but one that didn’t seem as abhorrent now.
Standing in the pile of shattered wood, I watched the shadows appear again. Their presence was coupled with the manifestation of their bodies almost immediately this time. They moved into the center of the room, their bodies flowing like coalescing smoke as they solidified. They turned to each other and, for the first time, begin communicating, their voices low rumbles that made the room tremble, only recognizable as something like language by changes in pitch and tone. This put the bats into even more of a frenzy and for the first time, they tried to attack the shadows. The shadows remained still. The bats approached and were stopped short of the shadows, slamming into some kind of rigid nothingness. It was as if there were a solid object in the air between them and the shadows that I couldn’t see. There was no movement from the shadows, no clues as to what they’d done, but the bats began to veer away, or else smash into the air inches before they hit their targets. Seeing this, I begged the shadows to help me, to protect me or give me this ability as well. To do anything that could help me. But they just looked at me, my desperate screams for help either imperceptible or ignored. And then again, they were gone.
I began to accept that I was helpless. That there was nothing I could do was clear, so I finally stopped my fruitless, exhausting fight against the bats. My days began to be spent with the monsters flying around my head, scratching and biting my oozing skin, ripping and reopening my scabs. At night, I’d try to close my eyes, but the bats would just keep flying and tearing and ripping and screaming. I could cover up well enough with sheets and blankets to cover parts of myself well enough to try to rest periodically, but sleepless nights were spent listening to a screeching that never stopped, a noise that was becoming less animal now, something more destructive in nature—the sound of something tearing, something being ripped open, like metal being twisted and torn.
Then one day a shadow appeared alone. This had never happened before. After making its entrance and moving into the center of the room, the lone shadow raised its arm. The movement was barely perceptible, a slight rotation of its shoulder, but the bats approached the shadow as if they meant to attack again and instead the first of the bats disappeared into nothingness just inches from the shadow’s hand. I felt something like hope as the bats continued to approach and meet the same fate. This continued until I was finally alone with just the shadow watching over me. I stared and waited for the shadow to act, but it remained still and just continued to watch me.
My first reaction to the quiet was to look at my hands and study the wounds on them. For the first time, I noticed the signs of an infection forming. After a moment, I looked around the room. I was still alone with the shadow. Was my torment over? I finally asked the shadow what it had done, but it just turned from me and faded away into the darkness. I sat in stillness for the first time in what felt like months. I had forgotten what it felt like to hear nothing, just my lungs gradually slowing down from gasps to something like measured breaths. I grew exhausted as the adrenaline that had been controlling my body slowly faded. I began to let myself believe that the horror was over. I felt what I remembered as relief and my overburdened body began to shudder and heave as it finally took measure of the physical toll of the crisis. Finally, I slept.
I’m not sure how long it was before I woke, but when I opened my eyes, I was still alone. I began to think about how to escape. The best idea I could come up with was to try and hammer my way out through a wall. To make a hole large enough to fit through and just walk into the darkness. All the holes I had previously made were gone, though. The hammer nowhere to be found. I searched through the rooms. No art, no bookcases, no furniture, no wreckage of the cabinets—just the smooth hardness of worn plaster and paint and the dull echo of an empty apartment. And then in the corner of the living room by the ceiling, a bat. Then another. I could do nothing but watch tearfully as they slowly returned and once more filled the apartment. When things grew unbearable again, the same pattern occurred, with a shadow appearing and banishing the monsters and the monsters gradually coming back. The first few times, I could relax, even enjoy the period of solitude I knew I had before the bats returned, but it got to be so that I’d spend the entire time I was alone just waiting for the horror to start again, anticipating the resumption of the monsters watching me, measuring me, hurting me.
Finally, I did what I couldn’t do with the hammer, and rather than wait for the shadow, I hunted the bats down. The sheer volume made them easy to grab out of the air and I slammed them into the walls and floor until they burst or ripped them apart, but the more I got rid of, the more came, and they met my violence with their own. Where they used to dive in, make swift attacks, and dart away, they now plunged into my neck and face, chewing and biting with rage until I tore them off and ripped them into pieces or squeezed them until entrails ran from my hands. A dark, viscous liquid came from them—more ink than blood. I waited for the kind of energetic rage that I’d imagined came at moments of violence like this, but each lifeless body just made me fall deeper and deeper into something I knew I’d never escape. I’d become a thing to be disgusted by, and instead of it giving me power, it destroyed the last tethers I had to who I once was. After what seemed like hours of violence, I collapsed, finally accepting my fate in totality.
I don’t know how long it’s been, or how long I’ll be here. The only feelings I know now are the pain from my wounds and the weight of being unceasingly watched. I occasionally have moments where I remember the first intrusions, elegant and beautiful curiosities, but I no longer know the person who experienced them. Still the shadows will come and get rid of the bats—the monsters—and there will be brief reprieves, but it just gives me a feeling that grows more familiar each day. That one where you know something is over for now, but you wish it could be over forever.
Brenden Layte is an editor of educational materials, a linguist, and a writer. His work has previously appeared in places like Entropy, Ellipsis Zine, Pithead Chapel, and the Forge Literary Magazine. He lives in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, with his girlfriend and a cat that was described as “terrifying” the last time he went to the vet. He tweets at @b_layted.