What was that? What was it again? Something the cave mean dreamed up then forgot...
Masika sat in her apartment, cowed by the gloom and dirty-gray walls. The clock in the kitchen was ticking so loudly it scraped at her nerves. Her fingers itched to rip it right down. Her toes curled into the fabric of her couch. She pondered the problem, biting the nail of her thumb, all the way down to the nub. She could stomp it into silence, maybe. Smash it to smithereens. Imagining it made her laugh. The sound came out awkwardly, somewhere between a choke and a sob.
The man in the two-twelve was screaming at his girlfriend again. He'd been carrying on like that for hours on end, without so much as pausing for a deep breath. The woman finally snarled back with a few choice expletives. There was a crash then everything went quiet. A few minutes later, Masika heard muffled thuds and ragged groans. Experience suggested they were either making out madly or fighting, nail and tooth. She closed her eyes tightly and tuned it out, tuned it out, tuned it out.
Time slowed to a mad, maddening crawl. The television cast an eerie glow across the musty room. The air conditioner stalled out with a clang. The air vents choked. Masika heard a scratching noise coming from deep in their bowels. It grew louder and louder, getting closer. Her heart leapt, fright tickling at the back of her throat. Something was up there, dragging its weight around.
Hysteria grabbed hold. She snatched her phone from the coffee table. Her fingers hovered over the number nine but no, couldn't call. She wasn't supposed to call Them anymore. She hit the only number saved on her speed-dial instead, waited for her sister to pick up.
"Maybe we didn't run far enough?" She whispered tremulously when it picked up. "They come crawling out of the walls, right? Right?"
"What?" Her sleepy sibling fumbled with the phone on the other end. "Jeez, what time is it?"
"Aidah!" Masika sobbed wildly. "Did you hear me?"
"Oh god," Aidah muttered. "Not again."
"How can you even say that? Our mother and father both—"
"Masika, listen to me. I'm safe. You're safe. Florida is a long way off from the Serengeti. Monsters don't generally follow people across continents, okay?" Aidah firmly declared. "Nothing is going to happen to us."
Masika wasn't so easily convinced. "Aidah," she couldn't stop the tears from welling up. "Aidah, the next time you see me," couldn't stop them from streaming down. "The next time you see me, you'd better—"
"Masika!" Aidah snapped, furious now. "I'm not doing this with you. Go to sleep already!" There was a click. The line went dead, buzzed with a reproachful sort of finality.
"You can be such a bitch!" Masika shrieked. She slammed the phone down into the cradle. "Stupid, stupid!"
She grabbed the whole thing and hurled it across the room. Still tethered to the wall, it sprang halfway back toward her. Impatience and desperation gave way to a defensive sort of rage.
"I'm not a liar!" She hissed vehemently to the empty room.
She wasn't crazy and she was not the girl who cried wolf. She'd always told the truth, the whole truth. Why wouldn't anyone believe her?
Masika suddenly realized that the dragging noise had stopped. She could hear breathing, a series of asthmatic whuffs that mockingly matched the cadence of the kitchen clock. She could feel the intensity of its stare. It made her skin scrawl. Her nervous fingers scratched at her arm, ragged nails tearing into the skin and becoming bloody. Would tonight be the night? The night it would come out, that thing, to toy with her brains and eat her face raw?
Her eyes darted to the door. Run. She should run. Every cell in her body screamed at her to run. Freedom was only a few paces away but she was paralyzed and then her absolute, worst fear was realized.
Her teary eyes fixed on the vent-screws. They squeaked as invisible fingers loosened them. One by one, they fell to the carpeted ground. The dust-coated cover followed. She screamed, screamed and screamed but there was no sound. The thing that crawled out dropped to the ground and landed on two feet was as nimble as a cat on a tightrope. It was dark and hirsute, hunched over like a failed facsimile of a primitive man. Its red, swirling eyes bored into hers. It lifted an abnormally long finger to its lips.
"Shhhh," it mouthed, though no sound came out.
Something in the air had devoured all sound. Masika's screams, the TV, that annoying clock; their voices had all been stolen. The only sounds that could be heard were her stuttering heart and the beastly creature's irregular breath. It crouched there in the corner, watching her, watching her avidly. Its eyes were hypnotic and slyly malevolent.
Bone eater. Face stealer. Skin dweller.
Words that Masika barely remembered were bubbling up to the surface of her consciousness. What was that? What was it again? Something the cave men dreamed up and then forgot. No one even told stories about it anymore.
From somewhere deep inside, some frantic voice was screeching. "Don't look away! Don't close your eyes. It's waiting. It's just waiting for you to—"
In a flash, it was beside her. It crouched by the couch, sniffing at her with an almost child-like sort of curiosity. It stank of rot and paste, mingled with dead leaves and piss. It had sharp talons for fingernails. They click-clicked against each other as the beast grabbed hold and clambered up onto the couch, beside her.
Masika wanted to scream, to run, scamper away like the scared rabbit she'd become. The thing blocking her path to the door looked at her pointedly, shaking its head. If she ran she'd be dead, painfully, painfully dead but if she didn't, if she didn't...
She shrank back, whimpering again as the vile thing edged closer and closer. Her screams, then the sickening sounds of cracking bones that filled the air; that ravenous chomping and the intermittent swallowing were all absorbed by the strange bubble of silence that blanketed her apartment.
Morning came and cops were crowding Masika's doorway. The man from two-twelve was being hauled away in a body-bag. His girlfriend, a bedraggled and blond thing was on the ground by the doorway in handcuffs. She was a black-eyed and hung-over mess, all bloody and bawling.
Masika stepped outside, closing her door carefully on the ghastly pile of skin and bones on the living room floor, behind her. Her jeans and tank-top were clean and she was fresh out of the shower. Her thick braids were tied back into a bunch at the base of her neck. She seemed ordinary and ignorant, questioned only for the sake of due diligence.
"No, nothing," she told the one who asked if she'd heard anything during the night. "These walls are pretty thick," she added with a slight smile.
She was smiling widely as she got into her car and drove to Starbucks to meet up with her sister. Aidah was already there waiting. The dreamy eyed gazelle was still wearing her medical scrubs, her afro caged into a tidy bubble. She was waiting for Masika in a quiet corner, hunched remorsefully over her coffee and cake under a framed print of Picasso's Two Saltimbanques. How perfect was that?
Masika hugged her just a bit too tightly, squeezed hard enough and long enough to make Aida think something might be wrong.
"Been looking everywhere for you," Masika whispered. "I can't begin to tell you just how thrilled I am to see you."
Aidah backed away jerkily but then she laughed, feeling inordinately foolish. "I was worried," she blurted out. "Last night you sounded so..."
Masika smiled apologetically. "I know, I know. Sorry about that." Her hand reached out, covered Aidah's trembling fingers on the table. "I'm all right now. You don't have to worry about that sort of thing happening anymore."
Aidah fought it wildly, the skin-crawling urge to yank her hand away from under her sister's. "What do you mean?"
"I mean," Masika drawled, with a sweet smile. "I think I'm all better now. I don't know. I just feel like a brand new woman."
Aidah cleared her throat, carefully untangling their hands. "That's good," she murmured timidly, fighting back a sudden barrage of hysterical tears. "I'm so relieved, so g-glad for you."
Aidah raised her coffee-cup and nodded shakily at the evil thing wearing her sister's skin. Eyes darting about frantically, she scrambled around in her mind for a plausible excuse to scurry away.
She steeled herself, took a steadying breath, and sipped her pumpkin spice latte with all the nonchalance she could muster.