From The Shadows III: Shadow Folk

From The Shadows Ch 3

Welcome to the third chapter of my free, serialized horror novel, From The Shadows. I’d like to apologize for getting this up here a week later than I said I would. Hopefully, the extra wait will have been worth it.

Enjoy!

If you’re new to the story, just click HERE to read Chapter One: The Kidnapper.

From The Shadows

Copyright 2017 Eric M. Heiden

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Chapter III: Shadow Folk

“Well,” said Frank as he parked, “here we are.”

Sitting in the front passenger seat, Lexi looked at the house they’d be starting in. She played out an imaginary realtor’s pitch in her mind. It’s missing shingles, has termite damage and probably won’t survive a moderate gust of wind, but take a good look around. This place will make you the envy of your neighbors. You’ll never–absolutely never–get a more-affordable opportunity to have the best house in the neighborhood. She narrowed her eyes. It really was the best-looking house here, at least the best she’d seen since they’d pulled into the neighborhood.

She, Frank and Seth got out of the vehicle, a van that had been repurposed for scavenger missions. As she shut her door, she noticed the house on the other side of the street and paused. After a moment, she shook her head. The building made their starting point look at least twice as good as it had a moment ago. As she looked, she heard footsteps approach her and then come to a stop.

“You okay?” Frank asked.

After a moment, she pointed at the dull-red mess just across the road. “I almost wish we’d start there.” She glanced at her father. “I’d love to get that one out of the way first,” she continued.

Frank gave a weak chuckle. “We have our orders, but you won’t have to wait long. Speaking of which, let’s get to it. We’ve got people counting on us.”

A voice cried out some distance behind them. Lexi and Frank each swung around. Lexi saw Seth looking down at the ground, both hands clenched into fists. After exchanging bewildered glances, the father and daughter both ran over to him.

Lexi got there first. She didn’t even bother to ask her brother-in-law what was wrong; she just looked right where he was looking.

She felt a knot in her stomach. Tire tracks, right there in the dirt. Someone had been here recently.

No. She looked up at the house. No. She ran, across the yard, up the steps and onto the porch before throwing open the door. She felt even sicker upon realizing it wasn’t locked. She bounded inside. No. The living room had been cleaned out. She heard the other two approaching but couldn’t bring herself to wait. She darted into the other rooms. Nothing. They were too late. Some hoarders had beaten them here, had taken everything for themselves. No. She put a hand on her heart. No. No. No. No. No.

She slowly willed herself back out into the living room, where Frank and Seth both were. Each was taking in the awful sight. Frank muttered curses under his breath. Seth just stood there a moment before kicking the nearest wall. Lexi almost did the same. Now, everyone’s chances were that much worse because some sick individuals decided they’d rather gorge themselves than share. How much longer would they all survive with people doing this? How much longer would August, Tina and Trina survive?

The dejected trio ambled out onto the porch.

Lexi took a series of deep breaths. “Let’s get back to work,” she said.

Seth looked up. “No,” he said. “We need to get out of here and go straight to headquarters.”

Lexi was stunned. “Why?”

“Whoever did this is still out there,” he replied. He then pointed up at the sky, up at the Night Corpses. “It’s not like we can notify anybody from here. We need to get everyone on the lookout for these people. We need to put a stop to this.”

Frank nodded at the other man. “Good point,” he said.

Lexi’s entire head grew hot. “And what happens to the rest of the neighborhood?” she cut in. “What if they’re still nearby? If there’s anything still worth salvaging, that’ll give these hoarders more time to come back for it.”

Seth shook his head. “Look, I don’t want to do this, but there could be more at stake here. Let’s say they are still nearby. They might not just be hoarders. We need reinforcements. If they’re willing to keep food and necessities from everyone else, they might be willing to do worse.”

“We might not even be dealing with combatants,” she shot back. “They’d probably run at the sight of us, and even if they didn’t, we’re all armed. Even I can handle a gun pretty well now.”

“You’re making a big assumption about these people,” Frank said.

Lexi sighed and closed her eyes. Images of her mother, of her only sister, of her nephew and two nieces appeared in her mind. “Look,” she said, “let’s at least go check out that other house there,” she pointed across the street. “Then, we can go.”

Seth was quiet. Frank took a deep breath.

She faced her father. “I think we stand to lose more if we leave now.”

Frank stared. She looked right into his eyes.

“We’ve got people counting on us,” she said.

Her father looked at Seth, then turned back to her and nodded.

Across the street they went, Frank in the front, followed by Lexi with a silent, displeased Seth in the back.

The tiny dwelling was even uglier close up. Besides the awful choice of colors–dark red siding and wine trim–the wood was rotting in too many places to count; the house was basically decaying. They shined a flashlight through the pitch-black windows. Seeing no signs of life, they went up to the front door and stepped inside.

Flashlights still out, everyone moved forward in single file. The living room was just wide enough for two people to stand side-by-side, but the other rooms were barely big enough for one. After a bit of maneuvering, they made it to the kitchen, always the first room any scavengers went for.

She opened a cupboard and smiled. She felt delighted, vindicated. Canned goods greeted them, not a lot but definitely enough to justify the trip. They all began rapidly filling bags.

After thoroughly going through the rest of the kitchen, they made their way to the bathroom. Lexi, the first one in, reached out toward the medicine cabinet Before her hand even touched it, she stiffened. Oh no. “Get your guns out!” she hissed.

“What are–” Frank began before she shushed him.

A moment later, there was no mistaking it anymore. Any hope that her ears were playing tricks on her were dashed. What she was hearing grew louder, loud enough for her companions to hear it too. Everyone hurriedly got out their firearms.

* * *

The first time Mark helped Beverly and Julie keep an eye on August, Tina and Trina, it’d been pretty awkward. This time, now that he’d gotten to know them all, it was a lot easier. Beverly was in the kitchen while Mark and Julie were in the living room with the kids, playing a board game.

The game was some generic knock-off he’d never heard of before called ‘Race Ya Home’. There wasn’t much to it, but it did its job, keeping all five of them occupied, especially Tina who’d suggested it in the first place. It was her turn now. She rolled the dice and, making a face, moved her piece forward a mere two spaces.

Beverly came in with a tray of sandwiches. “Who’s ready for lunch?”

Every player raised their hands and were each soon digging in.

Trina, whose turn was next, gulped down a huge bite, closing her eyes in sheer bliss. “This is so good!” She then looked right at Mark. “Thanks for playing ‘Race Ya Home’ with us instead of making lunch like last time.”

Mark knew the little girl didn’t really mean anything by it, but he had no idea what to say in response. Beverly, quiet as he was and looking a little stunned, apparently didn’t either. Julie set her plate down.

“That was very rude, Trina!” she told her daughter.

Trina looked at her Mom, surprised, as if that reprimand was the last thing she’d expected. August looked around and spoke up. “She just meant that you make the game more fun.”

“Yeah!” Tina said, joining August in defending their sister and looking desperate to spare Mark any hurt feelings.

Mark shrugged. “Eh, I like it best when your grandma cooks too.” He looked down at his plate and resumed his meal.

“Mr. Marshall?” he heard Trina say. He looked up, seeing a remorseful face.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright,” he said.

To the side, Mark saw Julie sigh and then shake her head.

Mark didn’t see a point in being mad. He’d meant what he said. He considered himself a decent cook, but he couldn’t hold a candle to someone like Beverly, so all Trina was really guilty of was agreeing with him.

“Very good, Trina,” Julie said, “but I’m having you skip your next turn.”

Trina closed her mouth and nodded.

“That means I’m up next,” August said, grabbing the dice. He turned to Mark and gave a friendly smile. “Then, it’ll be you.” He began shaking the two cubes.

“Mr. Marshall?” Trina said.

He looked at her again. “Yeah?”

“I like your sandwiches too. They’re just as good,” she lied.

He shrugged again. “Thanks.”

The game came to an abrupt stop. Off in the distance, a horn had begun blaring. Other horns joined in, each one closer than the last. Mark looked at the ceiling. Up on the building rooftops, the watchmen were sounding the alarms.

The three adults all looked at each other. The crude sirens never really gave enough information. The noise could mean just about anything. Unless it was another drill, what was happening out there?

“Everyone hold hands!” Beverly ordered. They all obeyed and soon formed a human chain with Mark and Julie in front.

“Let’s go!” he barked, throwing open the apartment door.

They went out into the hall, joining a crowd of frantic residents. Mark looked back at Julie and the others. “Make sure you all hold on tight,” he said, mainly addressing the kids. Down the hall they went, their progress much slower than Mark would have liked. Besides the throng of people filling up the narrow space, Mark kept stopping and glancing behind him to make sure everybody else was still connected to the chain. As they moved forward, he caught whispers coming from the other residents, two words being repeated over and over again: “Shadow Folk.” Mark gritted his teeth. That was almost always the first reaction anyone had to the sirens: that the invaders had returned, come back to finish what they started. He did his best to ignore the idea, to make himself believe that nothing would happen to them, that nothing would happen to the three at-large members of the Park family.

Finally, they reached the stairs. As they made their teetering way down, Mark wished they’d gotten a room closer to the ground floor; more than once, someone accidentally pushed their group from behind and almost sent them plummeting.

Thankfully, their descent didn’t last forever. They reached the ground floor, where guards were herding people toward the basement. One of these guards, a very tall blond woman, stopped them.

“Sam Tiffany, building personnel,” she introduced herself. “Which one of you will be going down with the kids?” she asked.

“Her,” Julie gestured to Beverly.

The blond woman nodded. “Alright. You two,” she addressed Julie and Mark, “can go ahead and see them to the entrance if you like.” She waved them forward.

Mark and Julie took her up on that offer and rushed Beverly and the three children over to the basement door, where another guard was stationed out front. August looked up at them.

“You’re gonna come back here and tell us once you know that Dad, Grandpa and Aunt Lexi are okay, right?”

Julie’s eyes watered, and she smiled. “Of course! Why would you even need to ask? Now go with your grandma and sisters.” August did as he was told. Once he and the others disappeared through the door, Mark and Julie turned and left. As they walked away, Mark heard another whisper of “Shadow Folk” from one of the other residents.

“Okay then,” Julie said. “I guess we’d better each get to our stations.”

Mark turned to face her. “Take care of yourself out there, okay?”

Julie nodded back. “You do the same.”

With those words, the two went their separate ways, Julie toward the front of the building and Mark toward the back.

“Did your family make it to the basement okay?” Mark turned and saw Sam, the guard from before.

His family hadn’t; the ones living here in town died months ago, but he saw no point in correcting her. “Yeah,” he said.

She looked relieved. “Glad to hear it. Good luck,” she said, pulling out a gun, presumably heading for her own station.

Once equipped, Mark exited the building and after a bit of cautionary maneuvering, planted himself behind the ruins of another, ready to surprise any ground forces that might show up.

Time passed. Nothing happened. After a while, the rooftop alarms all died down, one at a time. He fidgeted. He wished they had a better system in place. With as few resources and survivors as they had, though, this was the best they could manage, so he went on waiting, waiting for either relief or an enemy.

That’s when he heard it, the approaching siren of a scavenger vehicle. So that’s what the watchmen had seen. It was all he could do not to throw up. Scavenger vehicles never used their sirens unless they were making an emergency return to headquarters.

The noise got louder, and for a split second, he saw it fly by, so quickly and so far away that he couldn’t tell who was in it. He forced himself to stay where he was. It was very possible that something was chasing the vehicle. Given that the rooftop sirens had all gone silent, he doubted it, but he had a duty.

More time passed, each moment more unbearable than the last. Finally, he heard a voice in the distance. It echoed through a megaphone. As it and the slow-moving vehicle carrying the speaker got closer, he could make out the words he’d been desperately waiting for.

“Everyone may return to headquarters. I repeat. Everyone may return to headquarters.”

Mark jumped up and rushed back. No Shadow Folk, but something had happened to a scavenger group. He had to find out more.

Instead of going back to his own building, he went to the right-most storehouse, which housed a makeshift hospital on its ground floor. Mark saw the scavenger van parked outside with its door wide open. He didn’t even bother trying to get closer. A crowd of onlookers was gathered around the vehicle, peering inside.

He saw some guards out of the corner of his eye–one of them being Sam–and turned around.

“Do you know what happened?” he asked.

“Some bandits attacked one of the scavenger groups,” she said. “I don’t know which group it was.”

“Are they okay?”

Sam looked down for a moment, then back at him. “I heard they killed two of the bandits and got away…but one of them got shot and was dead on arrival.”

Before Sam could get another syllable out, Mark ran up to the building and flung open the door.

His heart sank. Just inside, he could see Seth, sitting down and surrounded by medical staff. Blood was on his clothes, but he didn’t look harmed and appeared fully conscious. Mark took a breath. It was down to Lexi and Frank. Which one had made it? He gulped. Which one hadn’t?

He didn’t dare interrupt the team examining Seth. Instead, he wandered around the room, searching.

A few seconds later, he spotted her: Lexi, sitting in a chair, her mouth hanging open, her eyes wide and staring off into blank space, her entire body heaving up and down as she breathed, her arms stiff and held outward.

Mark’s own arms went limp, along with his shoulders. Now he knew.

* * *

With all the death the town had seen over the months, most people couldn’t bear attending funerals anymore, no matter how close they’d been to the deceased. Frank’s funeral was no different. Besides the family, there was just Mark, Anthony and the doctor who’d pronounced him dead. Mark honestly didn’t want to be there himself. He would have preferred to mourn Frank’s passing on his own, not here, not where he could see Tina and Trina’s tear-stained faces, August suppressing his rage, Seth’s downcast eyes or Beverly just barely holding herself together.

Anthony spoke on how much of a team player Frank had been. Julie, voice breaking, talked about how Frank had taught her and Lexi how to drive and how they were the only kids on their block to never get pulled over. Even the doctor spoke, bringing up how formidable of a specimen Frank was to have not died instantly, given the wounds he’d sustained. The only ones who kept completely silent were Lexi and Mark.

Eventually, everything to be said had been said; everyone laid their flowers on the earth and, a few at a time, began slowly walking away. Soon, there were just two people left.

Mark kept facing the fresh grave. He clenched his fist. Over time, he’d gotten himself to believe that as long as the Shadow Folk didn’t come back, there wouldn’t be any more casualties, that he’d never have to bury another friend. He clenched his other fist. Well, six men had proven him wrong, six men who’d decided to take advantage of the situation, to loot and kill. Because of these six men, Frank would never kick back with his family after a day of rations duty ever again; Frank would never purposefully lose a game of ‘Race Ya Home’ ever again. Mark closed his eyes.

“Mark?” asked Anthony who approached from the side.

Mark glanced at Anthony’s gaunt form through the corner of his eye. The man wouldn’t dare speak, but he clearly expected something from Mark: directions, instructions. Mark looked back at the ground.

“You expect to have a lot of free time for a while?” he asked Anthony.

A silence followed. “Yeah,” Anthony said after a few seconds, breaking the quiet. Mark sighed.

“I’m glad to hear it. That’ll come in real handy.”

* * *

Mark heard footsteps behind him but didn’t turn around. Anthony was already in the warehouse, along with two of his other recruits: Joe and Otto. Only one person hadn’t arrived yet.

“It’s me,” said Dan, confirming what Mark already knew. He heard Anthony greet him, followed by the sounds of both men getting to their usual vantage points.

Mark stayed where he was and continued to stare out into the night, out at the other warehouse just across the street, the alleged hideout. Besides its flat-topped roof, other details could be made out thanks to the glow of the Night Corpses. Its windows were covered with metal bars; its roof protected by a spiked parapet.

Something at the front of the other building caught his eye.

“We’ve got a door opening,” Mark called out to the others.

“I see it,” said Anthony.

“So do I,” said Joe.

Mark kept looking through his infrared binoculars. He could make out a lone silhouette in the doorway. The sight made him grit his teeth. “Nothing new. Same guy as always.”

A heavy silence hung over the team.

“You’d think they’d let up their guard at night,” Mark heard Joe say, “at least a little.”

Otto’s voice answered. “It almost makes you wonder if they know we’re watching them.”

The silhouette disappeared and the door shut.

“Well, it’s not like we don’t know where the bandits are,” said Anthony.

“Do we?” asked Dan.

“Well sure,” Otto, sounding surprised and annoyed, retorted. “What are we even doing here otherwise?”

“This is our best lead,” Anthony added.

“The only person we’ve seen here doesn’t even match the descriptions of any of the bandits.” Dan shot back. After a moment, he sighed. “I don’t know. At first, it seemed so perfect that the idea of this not being the place seemed ridiculous.”

Mark kept staring through his binoculars at the closed door.

“You were right before,” said Anthony. It is ridiculous. That bandit attack has everyone spooked. Even the people who haven’t moved into the main buildings have at least moved closer to them, and out of those people, who would possibly opt to live alone now? Nobody but the bandits would even put up the façade of it. For anyone else, it’d be painting a huge target on their backs.”

“And what if we’re wrong?” Dan asked. “If this isn’t the hideout, if this guy isn’t involved with the bandits, we’re back to square one.”

Nobody replied. Mark’s shoulder’s hunched up, and his back tensed.

“Look,” Dan said, “I’m sorry. It’s just, well…maybe I could find time during the day to look for other leads while we keep doing this each night. That way, we’d at least raise our chances of getting these guys.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” said Otto.

“Don’t,” Joe called out. “Remember, we all agreed to not go in there until we actually see signs of other people. Dan, you even once said that if word of what we’re up to gets out, all we’ll be doing is broadcasting our tactics. If you ask around too much, that’ll do just as much damage.”

Dan sighed. “Then…I guess we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing.”

“Well get ‘em,” Anthony said after a few seconds. Dan sighed again.

Mark’s shoulders tightened up even more. He didn’t want to believe a single thing Dan had said. If only Otto was wrong. If only they could do something else and cover more ground faster.

Then, before another thought had time to enter his mind, Mark saw something that made his heart race. “It’s someone else!” he told the others.

A kid, all alone, had darted out of the building’s front door. Without the infrared, the youth would’ve become invisible against the walls.

For the first time all night, Mark turned around. “Anthony,” he said, “you and Joe intercept him and get him to safety. Dan and Otto, you and I will–”

“Wait!” shrieked Dan.

Like lightning, an adult figure appeared at the other side of the building and came at the youth head on, bowling him over. Mark had never seen the man before, but he’d seen a drawing of him, made by a sketch artist who’d talked with Lexi and Seth. With an arm around the kid’s neck and a gun at the kid’s head, the burly figure walked the smaller one back to the door.

Mark stared, taking the new development in.

“Okay,” he said, “new plan. Joe, go back to headquarters and get reinforcements. Everyone else, come with me.”

“Shouldn’t you wait until I get back here?” asked Joe. “There’s at least five of them in there. You’ll be outnumbered.”

“That boy might not have the luxury of waiting,” Mark responded.

Joe went out the rear exit, the same way each of them had come in.

“Come on,” Mark said after he felt they’d given Joe enough of a head start.

Everyone got up and rushed to the exit.

Once outside, instead of heading to the front and crossing the street to the hideout, Mark ran behind the building to their left while Dan and Otto did the same with the building on their right. It was only then that each pair stealthily made their way across the road. Once on the other side, Dan and Otto went to the building’s rear. Mark and Anthony approached the building’s front entrance, ducking under each window, pistols out and ready.

When Mark and Anthony got to the door, Mark took a breath, stepped up and kicked it in, screaming as loud as he could. Once inside, he and Anthony kept screaming. Mark knew it could get them both killed, but it was their best chance of drawing all the bandits’ attention so Dan and Otto could launch a surprise attack from behind. While it had definitely been a warehouse long ago, the building turned out to actually be a loft apartment now, and up on the second floor, Mark found his first target, a tall man, sneering and raising a shotgun. Mark aimed and fired. The man gave a jolt and crumpled forward, draping over the second floor’s railing. Mark fired at him again to be safe. The body rocked as the bullet hit it.

Bang! A deafening gunshot sounded to his right. Mark swung around just in time to see an armed man falling forward, dead, courtesy of Anthony. Standing next to the fallen killer was another man, a stocky man with unkempt red hair. Judging from his build, he must’ve been the one headquarters had labeled Number Three. Before Mark could so much as aim, the man’s arms shot straight up into the air, where they both stayed. At that moment, there were another two gunshots followed by familiar voices. Dan and Otto had gotten the last of them. All five were accounted for.

“See if the three of you can find the kid,” he told Anthony while not taking his eyes off the lone survivor, the surviving bandit, the surviving coward, the surviving killer.

“Right,” Anthony said and disappeared. Mark walked over to the man. “I won’t shoot you…unless you try something.”

He moved in closer. The two stared at each other for a moment, neither saying a word. Number Three looked absolutely terrified. Finally, he opened his mouth. “I can–”

Mark’s free hand whipped out at the Three’s neck, bludgeoning his carotid artery and momentarily cutting off blood flow to his brain. The stunned man instantly collapsed, right onto his back.

Mark walked forward, positioning his feet right by the man’s head. He stood over him. Number Three was still conscious. Good. “I won’t shoot you,” Mark repeated, shaking his head. The man stared up at him, breathing heavily through his mouth. Mark raised his boot. “That would waste bullets.”

“Wait!” The man managed to force out a plea before Mark’s foot came down on his face. The pathetic weakling gave an agonized howl. Mark immediately delivered a kick to the side of his head. Another kick to the head. The howling got louder. A third kick. The man started wheezing. A fourth kick. The man went still.

Mark looked down at his victim for a moment. He tried to pull his leg back for another kick. Nothing happened. He couldn’t find the will. He’d never done anything like this before. He took a moment to pull himself together and then looked at his Glock. Maybe it’d be better to waste the bullet and kill him fast, get it over with. He looked back at Number Three. Of course, if he was willing to use up ammo, ammo that could be used to protect the family Frank left behind, he might as well check for a pulse; maybe the guy was already dead. He started to kneel.

Bang!

Mark whirled around.

Bang! Bang! Two more shots rang out. It sounded like they’d come from somewhere underneath him; the building must’ve had a basement. Mark’s body tensed up. There were more than five! How many more? Idiot. He might have signed his team’s death warrants. They had families too, just like Frank.

Before he could get up, he heard a voice. “It’s okay, Mark! We got ‘im! The kid and his Mom are okay too!”

Anthony. Every muscle in Mark’s body relaxed.

“Right this way,” Anthony said, facing the basement door. A woman and a young red-haired boy rushed out and began frantically looking around.

“Hello,” Mark said, stepping forward to the rescued hostages. The two turned to him. It was right then that Mark recognized the boy. He almost looked like a different person without his glasses, but there was no mistaking him now: Eliot. He forced a reassuring smile at the two. “My name is Mark Marshall. We–“

The woman screamed. Anthony turned to her, looking shocked. The boy ran at right to Mark, no, not to him, past him. “Dad!” he cried out.

Mark froze. Dad?

“Dale!” the woman screamed. Mark’s jaw dropped. She ran over to Number Three, no, the man Mark had assumed to be Number Three.

No. Mark looked up at a horrified Anthony. No. Mark put a hand over his mouth. He began breathing heavily, rapidly, hyperventilating. He collapsed to his knees. No. No. No. No. No.

* * *

Lexi stood in front of the bedroom mirror.

“Mark,” she began, “it’s not your fault. You didn’t know. You…”

She shook her head. “No.”

She tried again. “Mark, why are you blaming yourself? It’s ridiculous. The only thing more ridiculous is how everyone else is treating you.”

She frowned and shook her head again. Yeah, that would make him feel her support.

She opened the door of her room just a crack. There was Mark, in the living room, silent, motionless. She watched him. He hadn’t moved from that spot all day. His head was bowed, he was unshaven, and his clothes were filthy. In the weeks of his being put confined to his apartment, he’d barely eaten a thing. Did he want to die?

She closed the door and went back to the mirror.

“Mark,” she said, “Everything that happened, absolutely none of it is your fault.

“Do you think I blame you? I don’t. I haven’t been avoiding you; I’ve been avoiding everyone. I can’t look anyone in the eye.”

She leaned in. “Everything that happened is because of me. If I’d gone along with Seth and kept my ideas to myself, you wouldn’t be under house arrest. If I’d kept my ideas to myself, that Dale Forrest wouldn’t have what might be permanent brain damage now.” Her eyes began to water. “If I’d kept my ideas to myself, we’d still have Dad.”

She stopped and stared at the mirror. It took a moment for her eyes to clear before she could see herself again.

“Stop blaming yourself, Mark. The person you should hate, the person I hate, is standing right in front of you.”

She looked away from her reflection. Better, she thought before letting out a sigh. She certainly believed what she’d just said, but was it enough to convince Mark? Maybe it needed more tweaking. Her speech absolutely had to do its job. It was the only way she could even begin to make amends for what had happened, for what she had caused to happen.

She forced herself to look at her face again.

Knock! Knock! Knock!

She looked up. Now what?

Knock! Knock! Knock!

She hissed, left her room and opened the front door, better she deal with a visitor than Mark, her mother, or anyone in her family. As she expected, it was Gabe, the guard who’d been stationed outside their apartment, put there to make sure Mark couldn’t leave. She also saw a second guard, this one walking away.

“What’s going on?”

“I just heard,” the anxious young man gestured to the departing guard, “Jon David’s back!”

This was the last piece of news Lexi was expecting. Jon David, who’d gone for help ages ago, who everyone had assumed was dead, had returned. This could change everything. For a moment, she couldn’t even speak. Before she could make herself say something, Gabe broke the silence.

“He says he found a way out.”

This did change everything.

Her face must have given something away because Gabe held up a hand. “There’s more. He said that there’s Shadow Folk just outside the town…and that he invited them.”

 

To Be Continued

 

 

 

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From The Shadows II: Surrounded

From The Shadows Ch 2

Hi all! It’s been three weeks, so welcome to the next chapter of my serialized horror novel, From The Shadows.

Miss Chapter One? Click HERE.

From The Shadows

Copyright 2017 Eric M. Heiden

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Chapter II: Surrounded

Mark stared at the man in front of him, a little round-faced man who’d walked up pushing an old shopping cart, a man who had changed the course of Mark’s whole day with just seven words: “I’m picking up for my neighbors too.”

“Reason?” Mark asked before either of the men beside him could respond.

“They asked me to,” the man said. “They all just got over a bug. They’re all exhausted. The household should be registered under ‘Harold Jones.’ Five people are living there.” Mark checked his list. There was a Harold Jones there, and it listed five people, just like the man said. He looked up.

“I.D.?”

“Got his and mine,” the little man said, handing over two cards.

Mark looked them over, frowning. He showed them to his two companions. Anthony, the younger of the two, tilted his head. Frank, older than both Anthony and Mark by far, raised an eyebrow.

“Orson Orwell?” Frank asked, his gaze not leaving the plastic card.

“Yep. Easy to remember, huh? Um…speaking of that, the reason you probably don’t recognize me is that I usually pick up rations when Rachel is running the desk. You can go and ask her if you want; she’ll vouch for me.”

Anthony got up to do just that. Mark would have done the same. True, there was an Orson Orwell on the list, but his asking for two households worth of rations meant they had to do more than check the list. Mark sighed; it also meant they had to do more than verify with Rachel.

Anthony came back and nodded. Mark stood up. When they’d been assigned this task, they’d all been told what do if anyone asked for double rations.

“Mr. Orwell,” Mark said, “everything checks out…but we’re going to need to escort you back to your dwelling.”

Now it was Orwell’s turn to frown. “Are you sure that’s necessary? I don’t want to trouble you.” He looked down. “I’m sure this cart’s big enough to carry everything.”

“It probably is,” Mark responded, “but we have a procedure. We want to make sure nothing happens to you.” He patted his holstered firearm. “With all that extra food, you might attract…unwelcome attention.” He tactfully left out the other reason they’d have to go with him: to make sure he did, in fact, give his neighbors their share of everything.

Orwell’s mouth dropped open. “You’re right. Nothing’s ever happened any of the other times I’ve done a pick-up, but this is the first time I’ve gotten extra. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that.” Keeping his eyes on the three armed men, he took back the cards. “Is it alright if we go now?”

It wasn’t just alright; it was preferable. If they left now, they might be back by dark. Mark, Frank and Anthony called for another group to take over the desk, helped load up the cart and then exited the large building with Orwell.

* * *

Even with the sunlight and fresh air, Mark would still rather be inside the stuffy tower; he was sure Frank and Anthony felt the same way. Even though the survivors had buried all the dead they could find, even though there were plenty of unharmed structures, it was impossible to step outside without seeing some sign of the attack: rubble on the streets; buildings that looked like their tops had been ripped off; a hotel that had collapsed in on itself, crushing God alone knew how many people. Going outside also meant seeing the Night Corpses.

While all the other invaders had been driven off, the Night Corpses–faceless, unmoving, humanoid forms floating in the air, their arms and legs limply dangling–still dotted the sky. They were only slightly less visible at day than at night, when they glowed a pale white. It was all Mark could do to keep from firing at them. He understood why some people didn’t want to live by the makeshift storehouses, but he could never grasp how these people could bear walking through all this to get their weekly rations.

It looked like Mr. Orson Orwell’s way of managing it was to keep shifting his gaze up and down, not focusing for too long on either the devastation or the remnants of the enemy forces. For an hour, it actually worked; not a word was said. Then, Orwell came to an abrupt halt.

“When they left, they destroyed the waterworks and all the power plants.” He looked right at Mark. “You guys think the food and water will hold out for a while yet?”

Mark paused, then nodded. “Sure,” he heard Anthony say.

Orwell’s troubled expression didn’t change. He glanced back up at the sky. “There’s so few of us left,” he said. “When they come back, do you think we can fight them off again?”

Anthony didn’t respond.

Mark closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. He didn’t want to have this conversation, but he knew he needed to nip this in the bud. If Orwell’s attitude spread to the rest of the survivors, this would be a problem. After a few seconds, he opened his eyes again, resolved to tell the man whatever reassuring garbage he could come up with. Before he could even say a word, Frank walked to the front of Orwell’s cart and spoke.

“Other than them,” the older man pointed at the floating bodies, “we haven’t seen any Shadow Folk since we drove them out of town four months ago. Now we don’t really know what’s happening out there–after all, we’ve been cut off from the rest of the world, and that Jon David guy who left to survey the surrounding area still hasn’t returned. They’re still out there, surrounding us; that’s a given. That’s why nobody’s allowed to shoot the Night Corpses; it’d be wasting ammo. Here’s the thing, though. The fact they haven’t shown up again suggests the military is keeping the bulk of them busy, too busy to bother with us anymore.” He put a hand on the cart. “At the very least, our boys probably have them at a stalemate, and that’s a worst-case scenario. The next visitors we’ll probably get will be fellow Earthlings telling us we won.”

Mark didn’t know how much Frank actually believed what he was saying, but it did the job. Orwell didn’t smile, but his entire face relaxed, his expression changing to one of relief. The little man nodded and began moving again. Frank and the others joined him.

A scream came out of nowhere. Everybody stopped. After a second, there were others, all coming from an alley just up ahead to the right. The blood all but left Mark’s head. Those were kids’ voices. Mark pulled out his Glock 9 and turned to the others.

“Frank, come with me! Anthony, stay here with Orwell!”

Mark beat Frank around the corner. No Shadow Folk, just a gang of kids, a gang of kids all angrily dogpiling on somebody, somebody screaming in agony.

“What’s going on here?!” Mark demanded.

The kids all stopped, startled. Mark holstered the gun and then, with Frank, rushed over and pulled the youths off their victim, a bruised pre-teen boy with red hair and glasses

A little blond kid pointed at the redhead. “Eliot started it! He punched Henry!”

Still lying on the jagged pavement, the redhead pointed at a boy with black hair, who Mark took to be Henry. “He started it! He called me a retard!”

“He did that ’cause you are one!” the blond kid said.

Mark looked at Henry, who appeared far too old to have such a little kid defend him.

“So you did call him a retard,” Frank said.

Henry smirked. “How else could he not know the names of the different Shadow Folk by now?” A few of the kids laughed, and Henry went on. “The giant spiders that can read minds are called ‘The Inescapable’, not”–he looked at Eliot–“‘The Unstoppable’; that’s what the ghost wolves are called.”

Mark’s arms grew cold; his chest felt like it was burning up. That’s what this was all about?

Frank sighed and looked at Eliot. “That’s no reason to throw a punch, son.”

“Yeah!” Henry said, still looking at his opponent.

Eliot looked shocked, then defeated. Henry smirked again.

“Do you even know what those things up there are called?” the triumphant kid asked, pointing at the Night Corpses overhead. “Or that they block signals and levitate cars?”

Mark’s lips parted, exposing his clenched teeth. He felt his entire body shake. “That’s enough!” he said. “Look up there! Look at what we’re in the middle of! If we’re throwing punches or”–he looked right at Henry–“provoking each other, we’re dead! Is that what you all want?!”

Silence.

“Disperse!” Mark continued. “I want all of you to go back to your homes!”

The youths obeyed. The two men had Eliot stay behind until the rest were gone. Once it was just them, Mark looked down at the boy.

“Make sure you never do that again,” he said in a much softer tone.  “After all that’s happened, you’re lucky to be alive. Don’t take that for granted anymore. The next time that guy mocks you, don’t fight him; don’t even talk to him; just remember that the Night Corpses block transmissions and signals; they don’t levitate cars.”

“I know that,” Eliot said.

“And if he was as smart as he thinks he is–if he was as smart as you are–he would’ve known that too.”

Eliot stared at him for second, then smiled and nodded. Mark nodded back but couldn’t manage a smile.

“Go home,” he said.

The boy obeyed.

Mark stood there for a moment, staring after him, then at the ground. He felt a hand on his shoulder.

“You okay?” Frank asked.

Mark exhaled and shook his head. “I don’t know, Frank.”

The men went back to the cart, and the four were soon on their way again. After another hour, they reached the address. Orwell abandoned the cart, ran up to the door and knocked. A moment later, it was opened by the same man Mark had seen on the I.D. card. So he’d been telling the truth. Mark and the others helped unload the rations and then walked Orwell over to his own home, just across the street.

“So,” Orwell said, “nothing happened, thanks to you guys.” He opened the door and then glanced back at them. “Um, look, I really appreciate you helping like this. I know this wasn’t something you were planning on doing. Obviously, I can’t share my household’s rations, but would you like to come in for bit? Maybe take a break before heading back?”

“Thanks,” Frank laughed, “but if we wait any longer, not only will we be wandering out here after dark, our families will have dinner without us.”

* * *

Frank turned out to be right. They got back just as the sun went down. Those four giant apartment buildings–the two used as storehouses were flanked by two that people actually lived in–were a welcome sight. Mark and the others rushed into the building on their left.

Anthony went as far as the second floor, while Mark and Frank continued up the stairs to the third. They stopped at a brown door with ‘312’ written in black next to it. Before either so much as raised a hand, it swung open.

A young woman greeted them, her hair pulled completely away from her face. “I was sitting right by the door and thought I heard something.” She looked back and forth at the two men. “Glad to know my ears haven’t started playing tricks on me…yet.”

“Ah,” Frank said, “you’re too young for that to happen, Lexi.”

“If only I could believe that, Dad,” Lexi told him. Her expression changed. “Are you both doing okay? They told us that you had to make a delivery.” She slapped her forehead. “What am I doing? You both must be exhausted. C’mon inside! We can talk once you’re resting.”

They complied. Soon, they were at the dinner table with the rest of Frank’s family. Seated next to Frank was his wife, Beverly, a third-generation Korean-American, just like him. Also at the table were Frank’s other daughter, Julie; Julie’s husband, Seth; and Julie and Seth’s three kids.

Frank told them all about their day, including the fight.

“Why do some people live so far away from the storehouses?” asked eight-year-old Trina

“Yeah,” said Trina’s twin sister, Tina. “Why don’t they just live here?”

Seth took it upon himself to answer. “They probably just want more open space.”

August, age ten, spoke up. “I thought it was because they were afraid of dying with the rest of us if the Shadow Folk came back.”

“August!” his parents, aunt and grandparents shouted all at once.

“What?” he said. “That’s what I heard, that those people think we should be more spread out so that the Shadow Folk can’t wipe us out all at–”

“That’s not it at all,” Julie lied, addressing August but looking at the twins. “Your father’s right. Some people just don’t want to be cooped up in here.” She gestured to the open windows. “Even with windows, it’s still pretty stuffy.” The younger kids didn’t look convinced. “Anyway,” she added, “there aren’t enough people left to force everyone to stay nearby, so they let people live where they want, as long as, with a few exceptions, like today, these people pick up their own food instead of someone here going to the trouble of taking it to them.”

Lexi sighed and put a hand to her forehead. “I just can’t believe those kids. With everything going on, they fought,” she looked up, “over the stupidest reason possible!”

“No kid likes being called names,” Frank replied, “especially in front of a bunch of peers. Everyone in this town has been through Hell on Earth, including Eliot; that insult might’ve just been the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“No,” Lexi said, “I was talking about that Henry kid. Why pick a fight over the names? First of all, Unstoppable and Inescapable sound too similar already; anyone could make that mistake; I bet he has, even. Second, those aren’t even their real names. That’s just what we call them, like how we call that dog thing that I shot that first night a ‘Mirror Mind’…or how we refer to the whole of them as ‘Shadow Folk’.”

“And how we call wherever they all came from ‘The Shadows’,” added Trina.

“Exactly,” Lexi nodded, “and why do we call it that?” She held out her arm, the palm of her hand face up.

“Uh, because they all came out of nowhere when they attacked us,” August said, “like they were hiding in the shadows up until then.”

Lexi nodded. “Right. We don’t know the official names for them or their world, so why start a fight over some made-up names?” She bowed her head and shook it.

Mark, who hadn’t uttered a word since the meal began, sighed. “I wonder if any of them will even be alive a month from now,” he said, his eyes not leaving his food. He instantly regretted it. The entire table had gone silent–no talking, no eating, nothing.

After an uncomfortable minute, Frank set his knife and fork down. “They will.” Mark looked up at him. “I could tell from their faces that you didn’t just scare them,” the older man continued, “you gave them something to think about, all of them, not just that Eliot boy.”

Very slowly, Mark leaned back into his chair, his slumped posture vanishing.

Frank looked at each of his three grandkids. “What Mr. Marshall said,” he gestured toward Mark, “is how you’ll stay alive too. We can get through this,” he frowned, “but not if we have the wrong attitude.

“I wish I’d thought of telling you this months ago, but better late than never. I want all three of you to promise–no matter how mean someone’s being–that you’ll be kind, that you won’t get in a fight unless there’s actual danger. If you remember that, you won’t just be helping yourselves; you’ll be helping keep everyone around you alive.”

The kids each promised.

“Good,” Frank said, nodding. “I’m going to hold you to that.”

Silence resumed, thankfully not as awful as before. Nobody was talking, but at least everyone was eating instead of sitting still. After a bit though, Mark guessed the lack of conversation was too much for Seth, who sighed.

“I was going to tell you tomorrow,” he addressed his father-in-law, “but you, Lexi and I are all on ‘scavenger duty’ next week.”

Lexi eyes stayed on her plate. “I thought it’d been a while since the three of us did it last.”

“Where have we been assigned?” asked Frank.

“They haven’t told me yet,” Seth answered. “They should have the details in the morning, by Friday at the latest.”

Eventually, dinner ended, and everybody retired for the night. With no electricity other than batteries, which needed to be preserved, the survivors tended to turn in early. Mark, at his usual insistence, slept on the couch.

* * *

Mark woke up suddenly and bolted right out of the makeshift bed. He was shaking.

After a moment, he buried his face in his hands. Another nightmare. Now that he was awake, he couldn’t even remember the specifics. He wasn’t sorry about that. A few minutes passed. He lifted his head back up. A faint light was visible through the ends of the curtain, a hideous, all-too-familiar, evil light.

Mark reminded himself that there was a night watch, that he would have heard an alarm if anything was going on outside, that he didn’t need to look out the window and check on things. He mentally cursed, walked over to the window and pulled the curtains aside.

The shining Night Corpses punctuated the black sky, just like always. Maybe they really were corpses. He’d never seen them move even once before, and tonight was no exception. All was quiet. Mouth shut, Mark exhaled through his nose.

Nothing was out there, nothing that would attack them anyway. He shook his head, closed the curtains and went back to the couch. He stood there a moment. He wanted to believe everything Frank had said, both to Orwell and at dinner; he was desperate to. He wanted to believe that those kids would be okay. He sat down. He wanted to believe that everyone he’d met that day would be okay, just like he wanted to believe that Lexi, Frank and their family would be okay, just like he had wanted to believe that his cousins and the friends he’d known for years–all of them gone now–would be okay. He laid back down, shut his eyes and drifted off to sleep once again.

To Be Continued

Link to Chapter III: Shadow Folk

From The Shadows I: The Kidnapper

flashlight, dark

Hi all! Welcome to the first installment of my new story.

A man is trapped in his own apartment by an enigmatic captor, but what starts out as Home Invasion Horror soon goes in a different direction: a bizarre, even-more-terrifying direction.

Enjoy, and as always, if you’d like to be notified when I upload my next story, hit the “Follow” button to the right (or on the bottom of the screen if you’re using a tablet), or follow my Facebook page (here), my Twitter profile (here) or my Google + profile (here).

From The Shadows

Copyright 2017 Eric M. Heiden

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Chapter I: The Kidnapper

Out of all the muffled noises Mark heard through the walls of his now pitch black apartment, the howls and screams in the hallway were the first to die down. After that, it was the gunfire and blaring horns outside. After a long while, there was nothing, nothing but the occasional explosion in the distance–so far away they almost sounded like harmless fireworks.

He hadn’t left the apartment once that day; by now it was impossible. His chest grew cold. What had happened to Art; to Shelly, Kyle and Sammie; to his cousins Becca and Bill? Had they survived? Now his entire body grew cold. Whatever was going on might not be confined to just Mark’s town. Had any of his family or friends survived?

An emergency flashlight lay next to Mark on his bed; in his hands was a loaded and chambered Glock pistol. He shook his head. It was an excellent firearm, but did having it really make any difference? In that dark room, his one weapon felt inadequate against whatever had created the Hell on Earth outside. With no electricity, no windows to look through, a door that wouldn’t open and a phone that had broken just last night, he didn’t even know what was going on out there; he had no idea what he was up against. There was another explosion. He gritted his teeth; how long before he found out?

He figured that, by now, there wasn’t another human soul for miles. Based on the destruction–the death–he’d heard through the walls earlier, he also figured that if anyone did show up, they wouldn’t be there to help or even to take him prisoner; they’d be the last person he’d ever see.

That final thought enraged him. Even with a weapon, there was absolutely nothing he could do but sit there, waiting. The ball was in their court, not his. He was completely powerless. He continued to stare out the bedroom door. After a while, he shook his head again. No. There had to be something he could do. An idea hit him. There was something he could do. He couldn’t get out, but maybe he could lure them in. The building was as quiet as a mausoleum right now; that gave Mark two advantages. First, that meant that if anyone was still here, even if they were hostile, they were probably few in number, maybe even all alone. Second, any noise right now would be easy to hear, especially if it came from inside the building. If he threw things against the walls and created enough of a racket, someone might come to investigate, and he could overpower them; he could get out; he could find his cousins, his friends–his grip tightened–or, if anything had happened to them, he could go after whoever was responsible.

Mark didn’t move. His plan was based on guesses and nothing else. He took a deep breath and let it out through his nose. Bad plan or not, unless he wanted to go back to waiting, he had to act now. For all he knew, the attackers could be on their way back here. If he waited too long, he wouldn’t be luring in just one or two enemies.

Before he could even plant his feet, there was a loud crash, just outside his bedroom door.

Mark’s whole body went rigid. He hadn’t heard anything open or close; he hadn’t heard any footsteps; how could anyone have gotten in? He quickly tried to dismiss the idea, to convince himself something out there had fallen on its own; that made a lot more sense. It didn’t work. These last few hours had changed everything. He had no idea what was and wasn’t possible anymore. There very well could be someone else in the apartment, someone who knew he was here.

A thought occurred to him. If there was somebody else in the suite, they were obviously trying to lure him out, which meant his being in this particular room gave him some kind of advantage. His body relaxed, and his head tilted back slightly. Instead of letting them force his hand, he’d force theirs. Since they wanted him to come out, he’d just stay right where he was.

Time passed. Mark didn’t even shift his position; he just sat there, facing his bedroom’s open door, the gun still out and ready. It looked like he was right. Whoever was out there really didn’t want to come in this room; absolutely nothing was happening, no sounds, no sudden attacks, nothing. More time passed. Mark began to get frustrated. He considered firing a shot out the doorway. Maybe that would make them panic, and maybe that, along with the idea that he’d used up some ammo, would be enough to draw them in, where he, somehow, had the upper hand. He was debating with himself over the idea when something else occurred to him, something horrifying. What if they weren’t trying to lure him out? What if they were trying to make him too scared to move? What if his room actually gave them some kind of advantage? What if–

Footsteps. Footsteps in the other room. Footsteps that were getting closer. Within seconds, he could see a vague outline in the darkness. The intruder was right there at bedroom’s entrance. Mark’s mouth went dry. This was it. Either they were about to lose or he was about to die.

The figure passed through the doorway.

“Don’t move!” Mark ordered.

The intruder cried out. It was a woman’s voice.

“Don’t move!” Mark repeated.

“I heard you! I heard you!” she said.

Mark hated to do it, but he took one hand off the gun and grabbed the flashlight. He turned it on. What he saw made him tilt his head. In front of him stood a petite woman, holding her hands up in surrender. She was Asian and appeared to be in her mid-to-late 20s, somewhere around Mark’s age maybe. What he noticed the most, however, were her clothes. They looked like something you’d wear to the office on Casual Fridays, not something you’d wear to wage war. He then noticed that one of her hands was holding a shard of broken glass. If she was with the attackers, why would she be dressed like that and why would she have come in here with just a makeshift weapon? If she wasn’t one of them though, how was she even in the apartment in the first place?

“How did you get in here?” he demanded. “Who are you?”

Squinting at the flashlight, the woman gave a reply. “My name’s Lexi, and I don’t know how I got here. Really, I don’t. I…woke up and found myself here. I don’t even know where I am.”

Mark sighed. He couldn’t rule that out as a lie. “What was that noise I heard out in the living room?”

“I wanted to get my bearings, figure out where I was. I was scared someone would hear me, so I wanted to make sure I was in here alone first. Nobody came out when I threw the lamp on the floor, so I thought I was free to look around.”

Great. Mark still couldn’t rule her out as a liar.

“What’s going on out there?” she asked.

So she was doing the questioning now. He decided to oblige her. “I don’t know,” he said. “This morning, I decided to take a personal day. I called into work, went back to bed, and the next thing I know, it sounds like World War III broke out.”

“So this is your apartment?”

“Mine and my roommate’s,” he answered. “My roommate didn’t call in. God knows where he is now…or if he’s even alive.”

He instantly regretted saying that last part. For a second, Lexi looked like she was going to vomit. She didn’t though. She stood there shaking for a bit but managed to pull herself together. Then, she slowly looked back at the doorway and spoke. “I woke up while all that was going on. I panicked and was about to get up off the floor, but then someone rushed into the living room. They didn’t see me, probably because it was so dark. They pounded on the door and walls like a maniac for a while and then ran back into your room. I’m guessing that was you?”

He kept the gun on her. “That’s right.”

“Well, when you didn’t come back out, I thought maybe there was a secret exit in this room, a way out that…whoever all is out there didn’t know about.” She sighed, indicating she now understood there definitely wasn’t. After looking around for a moment, she continued. “It doesn’t sound like anybody’s out there now. Maybe we could try the door back there.”

Mark hesitated. She’d been through a lot already–waking up in a strange place, hearing the world go to Hell outside, being held at gunpoint; if she wasn’t lying, what he was about to say might push her over the edge. He motioned for her to put her arms down, and she complied. He decided to put her at ease a little and told her his name. Then, not able to put it off any longer, he bit the bullet and began.

“You saw me try the front door earlier,” he told her. “Do you know why I gave up and came back in here?”

Lexi said nothing.

“Something’s holding it shut.”

She shot him a fierce, exasperated glare. “But they’re probably gone by now.”

Mark cursed his poor choice of words. “I don’t mean that a person is holding it shut,” he clarified. “The knob still turns and everything, but no matter how hard you pull, it won’t give.”

“Then we can try a window. We’ll be more exposed, but–”

“That won’t work,” Mark cut her off. “There aren’t any windows.” He took a deep breath. “We’re dealing with the supernatural. I don’t know what else to call it. There used to be windows. There were some right in this room. Now, there’s nothing but walls, like the windows were never there in the first place.

“We can try the door, but I’m sure it’s still stuck. I bet it and the walls are even indestructible. I don’t know why, but whoever’s out there turned this part of the building into a prison. These people, people with magic powers, don’t want us to leave; they have plans for us.”

Lexi’s eyes widened, which could mean she thought he’d lost his mind, that she was faking it and was really one of them or–Mark frowned–that she believed him, and if she believed him, was she as close as he was to panicking?

He had to nip this in the bud. “I did find a way out. I’m telling you all this so you understand why we can’t do something more obvious, like the stuff you mentioned. What you did with the lamp out there wasn’t a bad idea. In fact, that’s how we’re going to get out of here.” He then explained his plan, the plan that had been interrupted when Lexi threw the lamp. He pointed out how it was basically her idea but on a larger, louder scale, designed to be heard outside the room instead of just in it. When he was finished, Lexi looked down, seeming to think it over, and then back at him.

“Let’s at least try the door first,” she said. “Maybe whatever’s holding it closed wore off.”

She was missing the obvious, so he’d just have to point it out to her. “The windows–”

“The windows are gone, but the door isn’t,” she interrupted him. “Maybe the”–she made a face–“magic they put on the door is weaker than the magic they put on the windows. If it did wear off, we might be able to just sneak out.”

Mark had to admit it; she had a point, and it would only take a few seconds. He nodded, and they went into the living room, Mark in the rear, Lexi in front, the flashlight and gun still on her. He had her try the door. Nothing. She gave it a few more tries, becoming more worked up and agitated each time. Finally, after pausing a moment, she turned back to him and threw up her hands.

“You were right…and unless you trust me enough to holster your gun, I’m guessing I’ll be doing most of the lifting and throwing. That’s fine; I just want to get out of here and find my family. Tell me what I should pick up first.”

Before he could answer her, out of the corner of his eye, Mark saw a tiny light appear in the blackness. He didn’t even have time to react; literally one second later, they both heard it and jumped.

Once he realized what it was, Mark was overjoyed.

“It’s Art’s phone!” he told Lexi.

“Who?”

“Art! My roommate! C’mon!”

They both rushed to the device, Mark keeping both the phone and Lexi in sight. Escape–rescue–was so close now, he was terrified of getting careless, of letting his guard down for even an instant.

Lexi picked it up, probably still assuming that Mark didn’t want to free up a hand.

“Put it on speaker!” Mark told her. She complied and held it out to him.

“Hello?” Mark said. “Hello?”

He could hear heavy breathing. Moments later, the breathing turned into growling.

“What are you doing with my other phone?” a guttural, menacing voice demanded.

Mark recognized the speaker. “Art? Where are you?”

The question went unanswered. “Tell me you’re in the apartment,” Art said. It sounded like his teeth were clenched.

“What? Yeah. I called in after you left. I found your phone here just now; I didn’t know you had more than one. Look, tell me what’s going on out there. Where are you?”

Art ignored the question again. “Let me talk to her.”

Mark’s gaze left the phone and settled on Lexi. She looked as confused as he probably did. “You mean Lexi?” he asked, not taking his eyes off the woman.

“I know she’s there. Let me talk to her.”

Lexi looked down at the phone. “Hello?” she said.

After a bit of silence, the voice on the other end responded. “Lexi Park?” Art said, his voice no longer threatening. “You and I have never met. You can only imagine how much I wanted to tell you all this in person. Ever since I arrived here, I’ve hated this alien world. All I could do was bide my time and wait to go back home, but then I saw you perform at The Laugh Lounge. You made Earth come alive for me. I never understood why you weren’t doing comedy full-time. Your routine enabled me to appreciate all the ridiculous little details in your world, to see hilarity…and joy.”

Mark couldn’t speak or move. Art, someone he’d been living with for the past five months, had just referred to Earth as an alien world.

“Since that day, I’ve never missed a show,” Art continued. “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you…or about what would happen to you once we launched the attack.”

It was all Mark could do to keep from dropping the gun and flashlight.

“I’m the one who brought you here,” Art told Lexi, his voice now starting to wheeze. “I never laid a finger on you, I swear. My superiors gave me the ability to teleport people from a distance. I’m sorry it had to be like this, but there was no other way; you would have died otherwise.”

Lexi stood there, silent and blinking. Finally, she spoke. “We can’t get out.”

“That…won’t be a problem for much longer,” the voice said. “There are two ways to reverse what I did to the apartment. My plan was to come and do it in person…and finally meet you.” Lexi shuddered.

Still on the verge of going limp, Mark forced himself to rejoin the conversation. “What’s the other way? What do we need to do?”

“Nothing.” Art addressed him, the wheezing becoming more pronounced. “You don’t need to do a thing. Some of your fellow earthlings already did it for you…with their damned guns. We’re winning, but some of your people fought back. I got away,” he forced a bitter-sounding laugh, “but not in one piece.”

Art panted a bit before continuing. “It won’t be long. Once I’m dead, you’ll be able to open the door. Is she still there?”

“I…I’m here,” Lexi said.

“I’m sorry it turned out this way. I’m sure my superiors would have spared you if I’d let you out and brought you back home. You had so much to say about your world; I would have loved to hear what you had to say about mine.”

That was the last intelligible thing Art said. After that, there were a few minutes of moaning, garbled attempts at speech and coughing. Then, the phone went quiet.

Lexi shuddered again before looking at Mark. “Can I have the flashlight?” she asked. He gave it to her.

The windows hadn’t come back, but the door opened when they tried it, just like Art had said. It let out into the building’s third-floor hallway, now as dark as the apartment and completely empty.

Mark was the first one out; after all, he we was the one with the pistol; if anyone was still here, they might as well attack him first, not Lexi. “Keep holding the light up,” he called out. “The stairs are this way.”

In the hall, the distant explosions were even more muffled than before. At least they weren’t getting closer. Progress was slow and quiet. Now that they’d escaped, there was no need to draw attention to themselves; just the thought of doing so now made the hair on Mark’s arms stand up. It wouldn’t be much longer, though; they were halfway down the hall already. Once they rounded the corner at the other end, they’d be at the stairs.

The light vanished. “Stop,” Lexi hissed before Mark had time to say anything. Either her ears were playing tricks on her or her hearing was better than Mark’s; he could believe either at this point. Then, he flinched; he could hear it too. It was coming from around the corner. At first, it sounded like a rapid tapping. With each second, it grew louder until Mark realized what it was; something was heading toward them, running on all fours.

“Turn it back on!” Mark ordered. “It already knows we’re here, and unless I can see it, I can’t shoot it!” Lexi complied. Mark braced himself. At least it wasn’t coming from behind–he tensed up–unless there was more than one.

What they were hearing rounded the corner and came to a stop, facing them. It almost looked like a rottweiler but twice the size; it had no visible eyes or ears, but it did have an entire set of long, jagged fangs. Mark lined up his gun’s sights. He didn’t fire. All of a sudden, he didn’t want to. As he stared at the four-legged demon, strange, completely alien thoughts came into his head, animalistic thoughts that overrode his own. The gun dropped from his hands. He didn’t notice. All he was aware of was the creature in front of him, a creature that looked as vicious as he felt that moment. He got on his hands and knees. All he could think of was meeting it head on, tearing it limb from limb and devouring it.

The creature lunged at him.

A piercing shot rang out, and it fell to the side. Mark jolted back, trembling. The thoughts were gone. He looked at the still beast and then at his own hands. Lexi ran over to him.

“Are you alright?”

The creature’s head suddenly rose, and it got back on its feet. Lexi screamed and shot, missing this time. Its front leg wounded from before, it staggered toward the two. Lexi kept firing. Each shot missed. It got closer. The thoughts were coming back. Lexi fired again. Its head jolted back; then, it stiffened and fell forward.

Lexi shot its unmoving head one more time, apparently wanting to make sure they were safe, and then looked at Mark.

“Are you alright?” she repeated.

He shuddered. “It…it…took over my mind. Made me think the way it thought. Made me want to attack it directly instead of shooting or hiding…so I’d be easier to kill.” He got to his feet and looked over at the woman who’d just saved his life.

“Thank you.”

She looked at the dead beast, then down the hall and then back at him. Breathing heavily and shaking her head, she handed him the gun, grip first. “Here’s how you can thank me.”

Mark’s blood ran cold. He took the gun but only to get it away from her. Once he told her no, there was no telling what she’d do to herself.

“I won’t do it,” he told her. “You can’t give up now. Think of your family.”

Lexi’s jaw dropped, and she put a hand to her chest. “You thought I meant–” She shook her head again. “Are you insane? No!” She gestured at the carcass. “Look at all the ammo I wasted! You’re clearly better with that thing than I am; our chances are better if you’re the one holding it; I just wanted you to have it back!” She put a hand to her forehead. “Let’s go,” she whispered after a moment.

Mark pulled out one of his spare magazines and slid it up into the pistol. Thankfully, there were no more incidents. They made it all the way to the ground floor without any trouble. Mark signaled for her to wait while he put an ear against the exit. He didn’t hear anything, but he couldn’t bring himself to push it open. He wanted to get away, but there could be anything out there, things even worse than whatever had almost killed him. He sighed. But there were also people out there, ordinary people who had managed to kill at least one of the attackers.

“I don’t hear anything. I’ll push on three. Ready?”

They walked out the exit, and each gasped.

All around them–easy to see against the night sky–were glowing, white humanoid figures, each hovering limply in mid-air.

Both hands on his gun, Mark forced himself to look away, to look down at his companion.

“Let’s go,” he said.

To Be Continued

Link to Chapter II: Surrounded