Willie limped along the cracked and weathered sidewalk, the pain in his left leg singing like Pavarotti. The good news was that the pain was only temporary. It was simply a case of walking too long in bad shoes. The problem was that it was just about the only good news. Willie was making his way to the West Coast, albeit very slowly. He had done it mostly on foot and considered giving up several times. But something always managed to keep him going. It wasn’t exactly hope, per se. He had lost sight of that years ago. No, what kept Willie going was the idea of the warm sun on his face, the cool kiss of the ocean, and the gritty but somehow soft feel of sand beneath his battered feet.
While that might sound like hope to some, Willie saw it as the last vestiges of comfort before his trying and complicated life finally came to a merciful end. At fifty-two, he had been on the streets longer than he had ever known shelter and as such, he guessed he maybe had only a few years left. Spending them on a beach certainly beat freezing to death in some piss and garbage-filled alley. Exhausted, he checked his pockets to see what he had left from panhandling. To his surprise, he had about twenty dollars. Enough for some fast food and even a little liquid refreshment. Once he had those in hand, it was just a matter of finding a place to settle down for the night.
With no real idea of where he was going, Willie opted to follow the pleasant hum of the highway. While hitchhiking was out of the question (who in their right picked up anyone hitchhiking these days?), Willie liked the highway. It was always awake and moving forward. It’s what gave him comfort on his long and sometimes hopeless feeling odyssey. The highway represented potential. Not that Willie that he had much of it, but it was still something. And as he got closer to the highway, he saw something he didn’t expect to see at all: A rundown duplex. He guessed it had been abandoned for ten years or better. It would be the perfect place to settle down for an evening or two. He had passed both a McDonald’s and a liquor store about a mile back. And as much as his leg hurt, the knowledge that he’d have a place to stay would at least make the hike bearable. But first thing was first – he had to make sure that place was actually abandoned. It was possible bordering on likely that another person of his ilk had set up shop there and wouldn’t be willing to share. There was also the possibility of wildlife, but that didn’t concern Willie too much. He had slept near enough rats to know that most of the time, they didn’t pay you any mind.
He crept toward the house and saw that the windows on the one side had been completely blacked out. That made it unlikely that someone was occupying it. The other side was much more open and inviting. After jimmying open the swollen front door with the worn blade of his utility knife, Willie gave the place a quick once over and saw that it was indeed empty. That meant in less than an hour, he’d have a roof over his head and belly full of food and drink.
Willie did his best to savor the McDonald’s, but the fact was, he hadn’t eaten since yesterday afternoon. As such, he pretty much inhaled it all in less than five minutes, apple pie included. The booze went down a little more leisurely. He allowed it to slowly wash over him, numbing not just the pain in his leg, but the anxiety that had been buzzing around his head like an angry bee. There was always the sensation of low-key dread and panic, but when you factored in travel to an unknown destination, it could be near-crippling at times. He finished roughly half the bottle before unrolling his sleeping bag to call it a night.
In addition to the lights coming from the highway, the moon was also full that night, lending the space a decent amount of illumination. Willie had spent countless nights staring up at the stars and while they were beautiful, he was much more captivated by the ceiling looming above him. Relative to the rest of the place, it was in decent shape. The paint had cracked and faded, but there was also a curiously clean quality to it. Most of the duplex’s interior was discolored and twisted from time and the elements, but the ceiling looked almost pristine. It was as if being above everything else had spared it any significant damage. That was good. It was exactly how Willie now saw himself and the remainder of his trip. While so many people in his situation had just given up and died, Willie had risen up for one final adventure. With renewed hope, he prepared himself for a night of deep and undisturbed sleep. And he was almost there when something unexpected interrupted him:
The ringing of a phone.
The sound was disorienting at first. In his intoxicated and slightly sleepy state, Willie forgot where he was for a few seconds. A phone ringing was not necessarily an unusual sound. When he set up camp in alleys behind restaurants and apartment buildings, you often heard a phone ringing, particularly in the summer when people had their windows open. But then Willie remembered that he was in a seemingly abandoned duplex next to a highway. There were no other homes or buildings. The duplex was a remnant of a time that existed before the highway or at least the placement of this specific one. The other buildings had been moved or torn down, but somehow this had managed to stay around. A testament to its fortitude, he supposed, but how and why was a phone ringing? Based on the slight trill, he knew it to be an older phone, probably not unlike the one that had been at his grandmother’s house. She was dead forty years now and with her and the rest of her generation, so went those style phones. To Willie’s relief (and slight discomfort), the ringing wasn’t coming from his side of the duplex. It was coming from the side with the blackened windows. Willie quickly gathered up his things and headed for the front door. Just as he was about to step outside, the ringing stopped. Willie crept over to the wall and listened. Silence. No ringing, no footsteps, no voices. Save for the steady noise of the highway, it was all quiet on the western front. A part of Willie knew it was best to leave, but his leg still throbbed and the alcohol had yet to wear off. Setting off into the night wasn’t just difficult in this state, but dangerous. Willie needed to rest, even if it was just until the morning. Although still leery of what possibly lurked on the other side of the duplex, Willie set his things down and did his best to fall asleep.
It proved difficult for the first hour, as he took every innocuous creak and groan to mean he wasn’t alone, but after a few more swallows of alcohol, Willie was drifting off again. He enjoyed the distant, fleeting thoughts of the ocean and the promise of beachside living when he heard something even more unexpected and frightening than the phone ringing: Footsteps. And unlike the phone, these were definitely on his side of the duplex. They weren’t heavy and especially fast, but it was definitely footsteps and they were coming from upstairs. Willie had of course noticed the stairs when he initially checked the place out, but they were covered with so much dust and detritus that it was clear they hadn’t been used in some time. They also looked unstable, which was another reason why he hadn’t bothered to climb them. His leg hurt as it was and falling through them and breaking something was the last thing he needed.
The footsteps continued and Willie realized that they were making their way toward the stairs. Once again, he grabbed his belongings and was about to make a break for the door when he saw someone descending the steps. They appeared to be wearing threadbare slippers and as more of the mystery guest appeared, Willie could see tattered pants, not unlike the ones he was wearing, as well as an untucked button-up speckled with small holes. Typical wino attire that put him strangely at ease. But then Willie saw the face.
Although he couldn’t fully make it out, the light from the moon and highway let him see enough. It was a face that was withered and ancient and topped with silver strands of thinning hair that made Willie think of spider webs. His entire body suddenly felt itchy, but he was too petrified to move. It dawned on Willie that this thing bore a strong resemblance to the Crypt Keeper, complete with a hollow cavity where the nose should have been. But while there was a mischievous and even jovial quality to the Crypt Keeper, there was a vacantness to this being. It continued down the stairs at an agonizingly slow pace. Willie wondered if it could see him. As was habit at this point, he did his best to occupy darkened, out of the way spaces when he slept. In the case of the duplex, he was huddled in a far corner of the room near some overturned and forgotten furniture. It allowed him a perfect view of the stairs, but he held out hope that who or whatever this was would either mistake him for a shadow or just more garbage. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
To his great relief, the strange being seemed completely oblivious to him, continuing down the stairs before taking a hard left, which led him down the short hallway and into the kitchen. Willie heard the opening of a refrigerator and within seconds, the being was making its way back up the stairs. Halfway up, it stopped and turned around. Willie had to ward off every instinct that begged him to scream as the thing seemed to be staring directly at him. In its hands was something small and furry. It took Willie a minute to realize it was some kind of dead animal, likely a raccoon or opossum. Before he could speculate any further, he saw the being raise the animal to its mouth and bite into it with a loud and sickening crunch. Willie clasped his hand to his mouth as saw thick chunks of gore and blood spill out of the dead animal and strike the stairs with a nauseating plop. The sight was gruesome enough, but the hungry, satisfied grunting of the being put Willie on the verge of vomiting. It was a sound he’d knew he’d never forget, assuming he made it out of here alive.
With the animal now mostly a rack of bloody bones, the being turned around and finished climbing the stairs, picking off the remaining bits of meat with the studious care of someone removing lint from an expensive item of clothing. Unable to hold it in any longer, Willie turned and vomited a thick stream of liquor and partially-digested McDonald’s. He knew it would be a long time before he ate the latter again, if ever. And while alcohol was something he’d probably never be able to fully give up, he also knew whiskey was going to be removed from his diet for the foreseeable future.
With his mouth now dry and sour, Willie ran for the front door as fast as his injured leg would allow. He swung the door open and stepped out. As his left foot hit solid ground, he found himself on uncomfortably familiar terrain. He looked around and saw that he was back in the duplex. And if that wasn’t cruel enough, he had landed in his own vomit, its sickly hotness touching his barefoot through the hole in his dumper found shoe.
Willie yanked his leg back, causing it to explode with fresh pain. As much as it hurt, that was the least of his problems. He went out the front door again and without fail stepped in the puddle of his own vomit. How did the saying go? Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Fuck that. Willie was going to get fooled until he was as far from this place as possible. He made three more attempts before he tried the back door, which was seemingly welded shut. That left the windows. For good measure, he picked up a discarded brick and launched it through the one closest to him. The shattering of the brittle glass brought Willie more joy and pleasure than anything that had come before it, booze and women included. He limped over to the window and started to guide his bad leg through the opening it when the jagged glass began to reshape itself with a labored cracking. What was an uneven hole before was now a maw with long and impossibly sharp teeth. It began to close around Willie’s leg. He knew it wouldn’t take much for it to severe his femoral artery, causing him to bleed out in what was likely the entrance to hell. He began drawing his leg back as fast as he could. He was almost out when it closed around his emaciated ankle. The pain was unbearable as hot blood began to pour from the ripped and violated flesh. The scent and taste of Willie’s blood seemed to excite the thing gripping his ankle as the pressure increased tenfold, making Willie dizzy as he struggled to stay conscious.
It would reach the bone soon, but that would hardly slow it down. Once his foot was gone, he’d pass out and bleed to death, no way around it. Willie reached into his pockets and pulled out his handy utility knife. Yes, the blade was dull, but the handle was steel, sturdy and dependable. He smashed it into the gnashing glass, finally freeing his bleeding leg. The bloody shards let out a hoarse and ethereal roar as they tinkled harmlessly to the ground.
Willie collapsed sobbing but knew he had to act fast to stop the bleeding. He dragged himself over to his bag and pulled out an old t-shirt. Working quickly, he wrapped the shirt around his leg and tightened it with his belt. That would do for now, but he’d need to find a hospital soon. He wondered if they’d believe his story and decided not. To them, he’d just be a bum who injured himself wandering in a place where he didn’t belong. But as long as they got Willie patched up and on his way, he’d consider it a fair trade. Of course, that was only if he made it out of here in the first place. That was feeling more and more unlikely, but Willie wasn’t ready to throw in the towel yet. He was destined for somewhere better than this. He took another swallow from his bottle in the interest of pain management and slowly got to his feet. He looked at the various windows and saw nothing more than grimy glass. But appearances in this placing were deceiving. He had survived the first encounter largely by luck. It was best to assume that wouldn’t happen a second time, which begged the question of how he would make his escape. The doors and windows were covered and the less said about the thing upstairs, the better.
Willie was still mulling it over in his head when the next nasty little surprise presented itself. And it came in the form of singing.
Sweet, melodic singing.
Willie stumbled back when he initially heard it. The pain in his poor leg had only been numbed slightly by the alcohol. The unexpected pressure brought fresh agony that shot through his entire body like an electrical current. The singing continued and while it bordered on beautiful, it also lacked a distinct melody and lyrics.
“La la la la la laaaaaa….”
Willie held his utility knife out.
“This may not look like much, but I’ve used it before and that stupid son of a bitch never bothered anyone again. So whoever or whatever you are, you may just want to let me go!”
“La la laaaa la la…”
Willie knew threats were futile, but dammit if he wasn’t going to keep making them.
“I ain’t lookin’ for no fuckin’ duet!” he continued. “So open the goddamn door and I’ll be on my way.”
“Laaaaaaaa la la laaaaaaa….”
“Goddammit,” he whispered. “Where the fuck are you?”
Its speaking cadence was somehow more mesmerizing than its singing. And this time it was accompanied by the scent of an intoxicating floral perfume. To his great bafflement and embarrassment, Willie found himself getting an erection. Over here? Where? The voice managed to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
“La la la laaaaa…”
Now the singing was coming from a very specific direction and when Willie turned his gaze toward it, he wasn’t at all surprised to see another figure seated in the same spot where he had hoped for nothing more than a decent night’s sleep. The figure this time appeared to be a woman in a white dress with flowing blonde hair that seemed to glow in the darkened space.
Willie didn’t know what else to say. At this point, did it really matter? He may as well recite the alphabet. To his surprise, the figure responded. It slowly turned around and Willie braced himself for another monstrosity, but she was every bit as beautiful as her voice. She gave him a seductive smile as she stood up, even going as far as to sweep the dirt that had collected on her otherwise spotless gown. As the woman got closer, he got another whiff of her perfume and became weak-kneed. He didn’t just want her – he needed her.
Despite everything that had happened, his lust for this woman was almost uncontrollable. Somewhere deep inside him, he knew it was more tricks and manipulation, but how long had it been since he had been with a woman? Five years? Ten? It was a number too embarrassing to properly recollect. And now that she was nose to nose with him, he was even more drawn to her, largely due to her hypnotic blue eyes. She placed a gentle hand on the back of his head and drew him in for a kiss. Their lips seemed to melt together as Willie fell into a near and seemingly endless orgasmic trance.
When she finally relented, Willie took a moment to savor what had just occurred. He slowly opened his eyes and suddenly understood why it had seemed like her lips were melting – they were. Her formerly heart-shaped mouth was now an extended and misshapen oval that had a torrent of thick yellow sludge pouring from it. Some of it splashed on Willie’s legs and the slight acidic quality burned through his worn pants and sizzled against his skin.
He cried out as the thing uttered a strange sound from deep inside its throat that reminded him of a clogged garbage disposal. Based on his experiences so far, he had only one option left: The upstairs. And if he had to jump out of a window to get out of his hellish place, so help him God, he’d fucking do it. He ran up the stairs, doing his best to ignore the increasingly insistent pain in his leg, and was greeted with the unfortunate sight of the terrifying thing he had seen earlier. With a more direct view, he could see just how hideous it was and its leering grin was still coated with the gore of the animal it had eaten. Willie stepped back and heard the guttural groaning of the woman and realized she was directly behind him.
As the two closed in, there was another groaning sound and Willie wondered if another walking nightmare had joined the fray. It would be all-too fitting at this point. It wasn’t until he felt the wood of the stairs sagging underneath his feet that he realized what was happening. Unfortunately, it was too late for him to react. He went through the stairs and while the landing should have only been a few feet down, he found himself falling into a cold and endless void, only it was less of a fall and more of a float.
Is this death? he thought as he slowly gained momentum.
Soon, he was falling at breakneck speed, struggling to breathe before landing in a pool that was filled with a thick and foul-smelling liquid. Desperate for air, Willie tried pulling himself up, but the mucus-like filth seemed to have a life and mind of its own as it formed waves to keep him down whenever he came close to the surface. By now, Willie was almost insane with fear, but he was also a creature of sheer determination and willpower. If he did nothing else right in this life, he’d at least die on his terms. With that truth established, Willie fought with everything he had and finally surfaced. He managed to find the edge of the pool and used the remaining vestiges of his strength to fully free himself. Now on solid ground, he breathed in the icy air and gathered the energy needed to bring himself to his feet. Once there, he wasn’t surprised at all to see that he was back in the house with the two horrific beings waiting for him. In something that mirrored the bad B-horror movies he had loved watching as a child, the two held their arms out and began shuffling toward him, their bony fingers ready to seize and maul him. Having tried every other possible method of escape, Willie could only think of one other thing. He began tearing at the wall, hoping that the other side would give him some form of salvation. Only it wasn’t plaster and drywall he was tearing away, it was greasy bits of flesh that throbbed, pulsed, and made hideous squelching sounds as they were ripped free.
The two ghastly beings drew closer and just as they were prepared to wrap their fingers around his throat, Willie made an opening big enough to crawl through. Now on the other side, he was shocked to see that it wasn’t rundown at all. It was modern and homey-looking. The air was warm and fragrant with freshly-cooked cherry pie. He turned to his right and saw that the hole he crawled through was no more. It was filled in and painted a cheery and inviting blue. The furniture looked soft enough to sink in and would surely give Willie the good night’s sleep he so badly craved. But whatever forces were at work here had made a huge mistake. The windows, which had been blacked out, were now clear and open, giving Willie a perfect view of a long field with tall grass that was rocked by a gentle breeze. As picturesque as it was, he didn’t buy it.
Weary and well aware of the house’s tricks by this point, Willie trudged toward the front door. Assuming the worst, he gently wrapped his hand around the knob, but to his surprise, it didn’t burn or bite him. He opened the door and was greeted by the wonderful and liberating smell of exhaust. He had yet to step outside, but in his mind, he had done it. He had survived an encounter that defied all logic and should have killed him several times over. He hadn’t come out unscathed, of course. His leg was in dire need of proper medical attention and he was still soaked with the putrid-smelling slime he had fallen into. But both of those things could be dealt with. The bottom line remained: He was alive. As he took in another whiff of air that was far from clean, but still a vast improvement over what he had been dealing with, Willie prepared to step outside.
The voice was a whisper, but it had said his name. There was no doubt about that.
“Fuck you,” he replied, keeping his eyes trained on the highway. “I beat you. It’s over.”
“Look at me.”
The voice was louder, but not especially firm. It was less a command and more a plea. That made Willie smile. He hadn’t just overcome this thing, he had wounded its pride.
“Beaten by a wino,” he said. “That’s gotta sting.”
“But you’ll want to see this.”
The voice had taken on a more seductive quality. In Willie’s mind, it hardly mattered. In his mind, he was free. So fuck it.
“You know what…” he began as he turned around.
But the house had transformed again. This time it was in its true form. Willie had no earthly clue how he knew that, but everything about what he saw was so overwhelming that he ceased breathing for a few seconds. What was standing before him had effectively destroyed his entire consciousness. It was as if he had been given a factory reset. His memories, his feelings, his few remaining hopes had all been evaporated into the void. Willie was now face to face with a manifestation of evil that was not intended for this world or any other, yet somehow, here it was. It remained stock still. No more tricks, no more taunts. None of that was needed. Its mere existence was more than enough. Willie no longer even remembered his own name. Its face, such as it was, was all he could see, even when he closed his eyes. Eventually, the gaze between them was broken and Willie had no idea how long it had been. Minutes. Hours. Possibly days. When he looked down at his hands, he saw he was still somehow clutching his utility knife. And while nothing else made sense, he knew what the knife was and exactly what he needed to use it for. As a barely sentient life form that now only had one purpose, Willie was surprised at just how easy it was.
And while there was screaming, the house made sure nobody heard it.
Willie was found the next day wandering on the shoulder of the highway by a CHP officer, who simply assumed it was a confused drunk who had taken a wrong turn. In a way, he was right, but when he stopped Willie and got a look at his face, he also knew it was much more complicated than that. Willie’s face had been mutilated past the point of recognition, but that wasn’t even the worst part. Two bloody cavities occupied the space where his eyes had once been. The officer was speechless. He had seen some bad things in his time, but this was beyond his experience and comprehension. As he went to radio for help, Willie, who had seemed catatonic, lifted his head slightly as if he could hear something in the distance that was meant only for him. After changing direction slightly, he resumed walking and it wasn’t until the officer heard the honking of horns and squealing of tires did he realize what had happened.
And as tragic as it was, he couldn’t help but think that the poor bastard was better off.
Several Weeks Later…
Three teenage boys in need of a place to hide out and safely drink the vodka swiped from a stepdad’s liquor cabinet had seemingly hit pay dirt. The place they found was nowhere near any of their homes and best of all, it was abandoned. Although not the cleanest space, they brought chairs and several battery-powered lanterns that made the place comfortable and even a little inviting. They were there an hour and getting a good buzz on when they heard something unusual coming from the other side of the wall. They all looked at each other in bewilderment before one of them finally spoke. “Is that a phone ringing?”
Michael Subjack was born in a small town in Western New York. He enjoys good cigars and going on hikes with his dog Rosie.
He lives in Los Angeles, but you can also find him on Twitter as @msubjack.