F. F. Amanti
Old Blue Hair got it by the vending machines, the ones they had installed three weeks ago. Five cents and the thing spit out a bottle, cold as ice. Will wonders never cease? I never imagined she would drink anything but tea. Her name was actually Betty. I think. Or Barbara. I can’t exactly remember. To be honest, at the time she screamed, if you had asked me what my name was, I probably couldn’t have told you that either.
Betty (or Barbara) was a pleasant grandmother who worked in accounting on the fourth floor. Slightly overweight. She always smelled of lanolin lotion and something faint and indistinct that reminded me of Danish. (Raspberry. Always raspberry.) She was sweet. A picture of chubby cheeked grandkids was permanently perched on her desk next to a vase sprouting with plastic violets. She bleached her curly hair, and instead of it turning silvery white she had the bad luck that it always looked slightly blue. It was Jimmy Devlin who gave her the nickname. He worked in accounting too, although ‘worked’ is probably too strong a word for Jimmy. God knows what he did. He was one of those perpetual fixtures in our company, who you always saw but never actually saw him doing anything. The first time Barbara did her hair, his eyes grew wide at the sight. He wouldn’t shut up about it for weeks. Of course, that stupid nickname stuck. Which was bad for Betty (she probably was a Betty now that I think about it) and ended up even worse for Devlin. Now everyone thought he was just a miserable overweight prick, myself included.
He was the one who watched the whole thing. Me? I couldn’t do it. Not out of cowardice mind you. I wouldn’t call myself brave, not by an Irish mile, but I’m nobody’s coward. No. It was the sounds. I didn’t have to see what was happening on the other side of our overturned table. I could hear it. If it looked half as bad as what it sounded, the sight of what was happening to that poor woman would have been unspeakable. And God help me, from where I was I could hear everything.
“Aww, Chrrriiiist.” Devlin whispered the words under his breath. Even still he probably said them too loud. He held the edge of the overturned table we were hiding behind with those sausage like fingers of his, grabbing it so tightly I watched its plastic practically deform in his grip.
“Sit down.” Thomas White grabbed Devlin by his belt. He was the third in our cramped little ménage à trois behind the plastic picnic table. I knew Thomas by name, if not exactly by person. All I know is he was a guy who I bumped into in the halls every so often. He was a body builder in his extra curriculars. Bigger than Charles Atlas. His shirts were always a size or three too small, and he never struck me as the kind of guy who would go shopping for small clothes on purpose.
“Oh, blessed Father—”
“Shut up, stupid.”
“—who are in Heaven, hallowed be—”
White grabbed Devlin’s belt and yanked him to the floor.
“I said, shut up, you sonofabitch.” White had his face pressed so hard against Devlin’s his nose completely flattened out against Jimmy’s stubble.
“Oh, Christ. Oh, Christ.”
“Shut the hell up you walrus.” White put one of the giant bear claws he called hands over Devlin’s mouth. Now instead of words, what came out of Jimmy were muffled groans.
“Art.” I couldn’t help myself. “Who art in Heaven…” I regretted it the moment I said it. Which for me, is saying something.
White shot me a look. He narrowed his eyes. I swear to God, retard, if I die here because you two idiots can’t shut your traps I’ll kick your teeth out in Hell. He didn’t have to say the words. His eyes did all the talking, loud and clear. I agreed with him. If I died yapping I’d probably kick my own ass too.
Devlin’s eyes were huge, big as powdered jelly doughnuts. The pupils of his eyes darted from White to me and back. He was saying something neither of us could understand.
I let myself slide down the table until my ass was wedged between it and the wall. The space we had was tiny. It was uncomfortable. My knees were screaming murder, but this shared space, these miserable few cubic feet between the table and the wall were all the three of us had between us and that place where our Heavenly Father dwelled. My head was pounding. My hands were trembling, and I could no longer tell if the wet on my trousers was sweat, blood or urine. Probably all three. Truth be told, I no longer cared. For twenty odd minutes I had prayed with everything I had that those awful noises would stop. Now, that they suddenly had, the silence that overtook the office cafeteria was worse than listening to my co-workers dying.
If I had been born a fortune-teller, been party to some whispered divination, if I had slipped on my Captain Midnight secret decoder ring and figured out the hidden message on the back of my kid’s cereal box, I never would have gone to work that day. As it was then, and still is now, I’m not prescient. Instead of giving my daughter a kiss on the forehead when I left in the morning, I had given her a scowl.
“No wonder mom left you.”
“Excuuuse me?” I turned around slowly, not sure I had heard correctly.
She popped the yolk of her eggs with a fork, let the yellow ooze down the white where it pooled on the porcelain of her plate. If I hadn’t blinked I would have sworn my daughter was a 13-year-old middle schooler going on 31, drinking black coffee and Chivas instead of Ovaltine. Whatever happened to the little pink thing I held in my hands thirteen years ago? Where did she go? Where was the brown eyed child who stole my heart, and burrowed her way into my soul?
“You can’t cook for shit. I can’t eat this.”
“Why?” I ignored the language. I’d talk to her about that later. She was right about the cooking, not that I was going to admit it.
“It looks like it’s bleeding.”
“Well it’s not. And for the record, Julia Child, your mom didn’t leave me, she left us. Which is why, we are still together, and why I have the pleasure of force feeding you bleeding eggs.”
“It looks like it’s dying.”
I didn’t say anything. She didn’t either. She stared back with eyes that were slightly reddened from tears that must have fallen overnight. If I’d said anything, if I’d asked what was going through her mind, all that would have happened would be that she’d withdraw. It’s what I would have done at her age. Either way I’d still be in the dark. At least this way, she was still talking to me. Besides, I already had a damn good guess at what she felt. I still cried about her mother too. Neither one of us knew why she left. She just up and went. That was the truth. One year ago. Vanished. Like rain that evaporates off a sidewalk. One minute it’s there, the next, poof. For all I knew, she was dead. Or she left because she wanted someone else. Someone who could cook a mean fillet mignon. I’d considered putting up flyers on telephone poles, the way you do for a missing cat. But after a while, you realize she’s not coming back. You move on. Ever since then, I’d become a single parent, and I wasn’t very good at it.
I checked my watch. I was late. Very late. I grabbed her plate anyway.
“I’m going to scramble them.”
“I can scramble eggs, Tabby.”
I slid the semi-solid mess back into the pan on the stove and went at them with a fork. They smeared themselves on the scratched black of the pan.
“Sonofabitch.” I muttered that under my breath. I had burned my fingers on the pan. Again. That was three times this morning. After all the times I’d done that since her mom left, you’d have thought I’d have built up callouses.
I turned around. “What?”
“You’re scrambling somebody’s child!” Tabby’s face was a display of revulsion.
There were genuine tears pooling in her eyes.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake Tabby!”
When she left for the school bus stop and I finally ran to the Chevy to battle traffic and spill coffee on the front seats we weren’t exactly talking to each other. I called her from the pay phone in the men’s room after using a half forest of paper towels to clean the coffee stain from my pants.
“I’m sorry sir, but students aren’t allowed phone calls during school hours.”
“I’m sorry sir. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
Maybe I’d ask Betty for what she would do.
Now though, Old Blue Hair was oozing raspberry jam all over the fifth-floor cafeteria.
Thomas White made a motion with his head. What’s it doing? He still had his mitt clamped firmly on Jimmy Devlin’s mouth.
White poked me hard in the ribs. Find out, stupid.
I didn’t move.
White’s eyes narrowed. He made that motion with his head again.
I did my best to balance my body weight on the balls of my feet. Being careful not to make a sound, I started turning around.
That’s when Old Blue Hair started to scream. It was the most bloodcurdling, soul killing noise I had ever heard in my life. She started repeating something. It sounded like “Help me.” She said it over and over. Only, the words were being strangulated by the blood in her mouth and throat. They sounded squishy, wet and bubbly.
Devlin started to cry. From behind White’s enormous hand I could hear his muffled cries. I don’t blame him. Not in the slightest.
There was a sound of a footfall. A click of claw on tile, an odd, inhuman trilling, the sound of animalistic exhalation. The hair on the back of my neck stood so straight my skin hurt. If there wasn’t urine on my pants before, there certainly was now.
That’s how it had started. With that strange trilling noise. The lights flickered in the cafeteria, and then after a valiant attempt at staying on, went out completely. We had all laughed and cheered. If we had known what was about to happen, what was coming through the shadows towards us, we would have run. Maybe someday someone smarter than I am will explain where they came from. Tests the Army Air Corps was doing in New Mexico. Some parallel universe, that sort of thing. Me, I’m not smart enough for that. I’m in sales. All I know is that they came out of the very walls. Out of thin air. And that they were here.
Tommy poked me in the ribs again. Hard.
I peeked around the table. I let my head lean over just far enough to have only one eye peer around.
The cafeteria was a disaster. The rows of plastic tables that usually held ten people around them, twelve if you scooched up a chair and sat on the ends, were scattered like broken matchsticks all over the space. The ceiling lights dangled now from black and yellow wires, sparking. There was food everywhere. Plates and paper cups and brown baggies with half eaten sandwiches. The coffee maker, a big aluminum brute that always sat steaming against the wall had its mechanical guts torn out. The floor was slick with coffee, bubbling soda, broken glass, blood. There were bodies. Way too many bodies. Janice Mitch, Eric Ramsey, Steve Cannon. Those were the faces I could see. They stared back with blank eyes, open mouths still silently screaming. The rest of them were too mangled for me to recognize.
The thing, the creature, whatever you wanted to call it, was still in the room. Before, there had been three of them. There might have been more. I’m not sure. Everything happened so fast. Now, this last one stood over Old Blue Hair, Betty. It was leathery looking, sinewy, long. It was disgusting in the way it moved. The only way to describe the movements it made was antennae like, rippling.
Old Blue Hair, her hair no longer blue but a slick red, saw me. Our eyes locked. I could feel Thomas White poking me in the ribs. What do you see?
I didn’t need to turn around to know White’s face was becoming pallid. I could feel it. The very air around all of us was becoming cold.
“Greg—” she stirred.
What was I supposed to do? Scream? Run like some deranged office worker Rambo towards the thing, the alien that crouched over her? What would that have done? I stayed silent and watched.
It, the thing, slowly reached out with a long, slender arm. Its fingers wrapped themselves delicately around her throat. Betty began to scream again.
“What’s it doing?” I heard White’s whisper in my ear. Felt the heat of his breath against my cheek.
How can I describe the sounds? The snap of bone. The bubbly gurgling of a scream squeezed to death in a throat gripped by alien fingers? The hissy, rippling trill of happiness that the creature made as it flensed meat from her spasmodically writhing body? What words are there for me to share what I saw?
Devlin was throwing up, making a retching noise behind White’s hand. I couldn’t blame him for that either. Listening to what was happening was far worse than seeing it.
There was the noise of breaking glass. Of metal being wrenched violently apart. The alien had knocked over the vending machine. The glass within its frame had shattered on the floor, its myriad pieces scattering like some crazed kaleidoscope. All I could see now of Betty were her legs. The rest of her was hidden behind the twisted mass of vending machine metal and haphazardly strewn bags of potato chips and soda cans. The creature stood. It was tall, far taller than I had originally thought. It practically unfolded itself to a staggering size. It seemed to shine, to glisten along its body with some sort of bio-luminescence, some primal display of its aggression. How could such a thing, not one but many of them, just appear? Out of nowhere? Out of the shadows? The creature had to bend and hunch over because of the ceiling. It started tearing the remains of the vending machine apart. It did so not with fury, but with what to me, seemed almost like boredom. As if it were wondering what to do next. It tossed sundered parts of the machine around the room.
It was getting dark outside when at last the creature shuffled off. The sunlight that had been coming in through the window at the end of the hall that led to the cafeteria no longer cut through the gloom.
“We can’t stay here.”
I nodded. White must have felt my movement because in the dark he probably didn’t see me.
“Is it gone you think?”
“I’m not… I don’t know. I think so.”
I felt Thomas White lower something to the ground.
“I need your shirt sleeve.”
“Sure,” I said. I hadn’t expected him to suddenly tear it. The sound it made when he ripped it was loud enough to make me cringe. He must have felt that too.
“Sorry. My hand. Its bleeding.”
I asked why, but he didn’t need to answer for me to know what had happened. Devlin’s body was slumped on the ground in the small space the three of us shared. I could feel his corpse against my leg. I put two and two together. White had never let go. He held on to Devlin the entire time we were behind that godforsaken table. The bastard bit him as he drowned in his vomit.
White rustled through his pockets. He pulled out a folding pocket knife. One of those red and white jobs with a half million little tools in it, including a miniature scissors. He put it in my hand.
“It’s not much.”
“It’s better than nothing,” I said.
For the first time in six hours we stood up. Slowly we edged out past the table. My knees made a sound like a gunshot. The smell of copper in the air was overwhelming.
“You think there’s more of them?”
“You know damn well there’s more in the building.”
“No,” he said, “I mean like outside. In the city, on the street, or like in people’s houses and stuff. You think there’s more?”
It was a thought that had crossed my mind. Tabby was out there. “I hope not.”
“What if there are?”
I didn’t know. What if there are? What then? In the darkness I saw my daughter playing with a half-fried egg. I saw her eyes watching me. And behind her… what if there were more?
I popped the blade of the pocket knife open. “You ready,” I asked.
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
For a second, maybe three, I closed my eyes and thought something as hard as I could: I’m coming Tabby. Daddy’s coming.
I could feel White behind me. I could hear his breathing.
“Let’s go,” I said, then turned towards where I thought the doorway was, and edged my way towards the darkness that lay beyond.
F. F. Amanti holds a B.A. in English from Williams College. He lives with his wife and three children in Palm Harbor, Florida.