“What happened!?” Lori pulls away from Nathan and stands up straight.
“Well I cant’t say for sure, but I think the lights went out.” There isn’t one iota of uncertainty in Nathan’s smirking tone.
“Ugh, yes, thank you. But why?”
Another loud metallic thud! reverberates around them and they are bathed in a greenish and wavering pool of light from above.
“Ah!” Nathan says. “There. They probably just turn off the main lights overnight to save money.”
Nathan tries to take a step forward, but Lori grabs the back of his T-shirt.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“Look.” Lori nods toward the body of the store. “It’s not because the store is closed. This light came on…but just this one.”
Nathan follows her gaze. Sure enough—nothing. No emergency lights, no exit signs. Just what appears to be a solid wall of black.
Lori and Nathan both jump. Somewhere out in the dark, a metallic skittering breaks the stillness.
“What the hell was that?”
Chk-chk-chk-chk-chk. It comes in fits of pause-chk-chk-chk-chk-chk-pause, and for every fit and pause the noise gets louder. Closer.
“Nathan…something’s out there.” Lori hasn’t let go of his t-shirt, and she now steps more directly behind him as he puts out an arm, shielding her from the invisible but clearly advancing threat.
Chk-chk-chk. The closer it gets, the more unmistakable the direction. Lori finds her eyes being subconsciously drawn ever more upward.
“Right on top of us.”
A skin-shriveling screech pierces the tense air, as if Nathan’s observation had pierced a wild animal with a burning arrow. A moment later comes a whoosh! of air followed by a gut-wrenching THUD! of flesh and bone as a body drops from the nothingness above and lands quite ungracefully behind them near the edge of the light.
Lori and Nathan both cry out in surprise, clutching arms like scared children or cowardly cartoon dogs. Their cries echo, repeating over and over and eventually dying into a complete and sickening silence.
The body, face down and unnerving in its stillness, is cloaked in a shapeless brown dress (or tunic?), unspecific to any gender but clearly covering a pile of arms and legs twisted into the most unnatural angles. A wide cloud of frizzy brown hair obscures the face.
No one—not Lori, not Nathan, and certainly not the broken body on the floor—no one moves for what feels like a long time. There is an almost claustrophobic thumping in Lori’s ears, so loud and close that she can barely make out the sound of her own panicked breathing. She wants to speak, to scream, to say anything, but she can only stand helpless and mute under the crushing weight of fear.
Lori rolls her eyes and the spell is broken.
“Sorry, I know that is a stupid thing to say, but…I mean, shit! Who is that?”
“I can’t tell.”
“Should we…check for a pulse or something?”
“Yeah…yeah we probably should.”
Neither of them move. Lori pushes at Nathan with her elbow.
“I went last time.”
“What last time? Last time a body fell out of the sky?”
“Just do it. After all, you’re the man…kinda.””
“That’s sexist. And insulting.”
“Look, it fell out of the freaking ceiling. It’s obviously dead. You just have to check and make sure so we can tell the cops that we checked. What are you so afraid of?”
“Oh my God…fine, I’ll do it.”
“Well if you insist.”
Shaking her head, Lori extracts her arms from Nathan’s Scooby-Doo embrace and approaches the morbidly still body on the floor. Each step feels like it weighs fifty pounds and lasts about a year. She stoops toward the body, and extends her hand towards the far shoulder to roll it over. Then she freezes.
Is it her imagination, or does she hear…growling?
Her hand snaps back into her chest and she stumbles away. Stings of adrenaline rush down her arms as she finds the air knocked out of her yet again. That thing is still breathing…isn’t it? How? Though the questions linger in her mind, she’s not interested in further research.
“Actually Nathan, maybe we should just forget this whole pulse thing and go right to calling the cops. I mean, there’s no way it’s—”
Turning around, Lori’s jaw goes slack and the ability to speak completely escapes her.
Standing behind a concerned Nathan is the tallest and most hideous creature Lori has ever seen in her life so far. It towers at least eight feet over Nathan’s five-ten, and is as wide as a small sedan. It’s flesh is a mottled mass of brownish lumps, like a child has molded it out several different colors of clay. It’s arms sag from burly shoulders, its knuckles almost dragging on the ground. A chunky sphere-like lump on the top of the thing’s broad torso droops toward the unsuspecting boy below as if it is watching him, but Lori sees no eyes. Indeed, the nightmare in front of her has no face at all.
Somehow it must sense it has been detected though, because as Lori’s eyes pass over it’s presumed head, it seizes Nathan, wrapping its massive arms around his chest and waist.
“Nathan!” Lori screams.
Nathan’s only response is a strangled cough and bulging eyes as the thing begins to squeeze the air out of his body.
Lori scans the area for…something…anything! Anything if it might help! A stapler. Scissors. Three-hole punch. None of that seems like it will be of much help.
The monster groans as its body draws into itself, like a snake recoiling before an attack. Then there is a sound unlike anything Lori has ever heard before—like what an eyeball being pulled slowly out of its socket must sound like—as the monster’s lumpy head splits open in a jagged slit, pulling the top half almost completely back to hang over the nape of its bulbous neck. Inside is a pulsing crimson chasm lined with a dozen rows of needle-like teeth.
Nathan’s eyes bulge even wider as the gaping maw inches closer and closer to his face. He flails his arms, twisting his mouth and gasping silently at the air. His gaze finds Lori. She can see the tears of pain and terror start to flow from the corner of his eyes. With his arms pinned at his sides, his hands and fingers work frantically, pointing in her direction. Reaching out for her. But there is nothing she can do.
“This can’t be real.”
She can feel the tears sting the back of her eyes. Is she really about to watch Nathan die?
The noise feels louder than thunder. Nathan falls to the ground, gasping for breath, the left side of his head suddenly coated in a thick paste of blood and flesh. At first, Lori is certain that he has been killed, that the thing has completed its task (whatever that was), and would now be coming for her. But when the grotesque mass of evil falls to its knees next to Nathan with what appears to be a red and black rotten pumpkin where its pointy mouth once was, Lori realizes that the current threat has actually passed. Or rather, it has been eliminated.
Lori rushes to Nathan, propping up his slimy, disgusting head in her lap. He is coughing and his lips are edged with blue, but he is breathing. He seems to be…mostly…okay.
“Lori, Lori, Lori.”
Somewhere in the dark, beyond the massive corpse, a familiar voice mutters her name. Familiar, and in a certain way, even more terrifying than the monster.
Lori looks up to see her night manager, Grace. One of her feet is propped up on the monster’s back, her opposite arm bracing her weight against the handle of a mighty sledgehammer, the business end of which is currently pressing the last of the juices out of the misshapen skull as if it were an overripe apple. Her blue work shirt, normally pressed and starched half to death, now hangs open over a white tank top, sleeves rolled up past her elbows and a pair of leathery tan workman’s gloves covering her hands. Her usual management khakis have been swapped out for black skinny jeans and heavy soled black leather boots. Her hair is tied back in a high ponytail, but otherwise looks as smooth and straight as ever. She has what appears to be a miner’s headlamp strapped to her forehead that shoots a strong white beam just over Lori’s head as Grace regards Lori with a look that somehow, despite the circumstances, is still that patented Grace blend of calm and slightly annoyed.
Lori almost laughs. It’s just so nice to know that some things don’t change.
“Lori, what did I say?”
Lori looks down. “I know.””
“Because I distinctly remember saying…”
“I know. Look,” Lori starts dragging the disoriented Nathan to his feet. “It’s a long story, but basically I fell asleep, and then there was this…stuff, I had to get for my mom.””
“Our beer section is organized terribly!” Nathan bursts from out of nowhere. “It took me forever to find this!” Lori isn’t sure how Nathan managed to keep hold of the six-pack up to now, but sure enough the PBR tall boys are all still dangling from the plastic connective tissue entwined in his fingers.
Grace raises her eyebrows. “Yeah…and we are definitely going to have a talk about THAT later.”
“Grace, what IS that thing?” Lori nods at the pile of flesh oozing fluids at Grace’s feet.
Grace looks down, a scowl clouding her already tumultuous eyes. “A Leech with legs.”
“I don’t know if they have a proper name or anything, but we just call ’em Leeches. They build them out of dirt and shit and whatever they can find. The bigger the better. Then they animate ’em, and they make ’em bat cleanup.”
“Who builds them?”
“Don’t know exactly. But these assholes are dumb as dirt—not that surprising really. So they always follow a Banshee. Kind of like a lion and it’s tamer. The Leech goes for the blitz attack like this while the Banshee creates a distraction. Lately their favorite trick is to dive bomb from the ceiling and then play dead. Someone goes to investigate and then…boo.”
A cold prickly feeling shoots down Lori’s spine. “Did you say…play dead?”
Right on cue, the previously limp body behind them snaps to it’s feet with a scream that makes Lori’s blood squirm in her veins. The face seems female, but incredibly old. Almost rotten. The yellow-green skin sags off the bones. Her eyes are buried in her skull, with yellow with pupils constricted into black pinpoints. Her open mouth is full of misshapen and jagged brown teeth that appear to be coated and lined with blood.
Lori inhales sharply and clutches to Nathan, who shudders but is still too weak to even raise his arms in retaliation.
Grace reaches down to grasp the neck of her hammer, the other hand anchoring it near the end of the handle as she rears back and prepares to swing.
“Duck!” she yells, and Lori complies, pulling Nathan down with her. But before Grace can complete her attack, the screeching face explodes into wet, red confetti, spraying all of them in a fine red mist.
When the remainder of the hag’s body falls to the floor, Lori spots a figure standing near the main doors, silhouetted by the parking lot lights slicing through the glass entryway. In his extended arm is some kind of shotgun, sleek and square with a round magazine hanging below the stock. He lowers the weapon to his side as he approaches the three of them, and slowly Lori is able to make out his attire-another standard issue company work shirt and khaki pants—and his face…
She knows him. Or at least she’s seen him once before. And not ten feet from where he is now standing.
“Dammit Cooper! A little warning next time would be nice!” Grace wipes her face with the bottom of her tank top, leaving a big red smear across her stomach.
“Oh, my mistake. Next time I will be sure to ask permission before I save your ass. Though the bitch will probably be chewing your face off already so…”
“Shut up,” Grace steps over the body and blood towards Cooper. “Where the hell have you been? It was ‘ten more minutes’ over an hour ago.”
“I said about ten minutes. You never really know with leaky faucets.”
“Since when are you a plumber?”
“Since I got married. Now I’m a plumber, electrician, carpenter, garbage man…”
“You should join a union.”
“Ha ha ha. Hey, I came back didn’t I? I had Specs unlock the trap door so we didn’t even have to suspend security. And look—” Cooper removes a small flat object wrapped in white wax paper from the leather messenger bag slung across his body. “Allie made me bring this for you. To say thanks.”
Grace takes the package, eyeing it with suspicion.
“It’s a cookie. She baked two dozen specifically so I could give you one.”
“Is it chocolate chip?”
“But she did put chocolate drizzle on it.”
“Oh! Well…that’s good enough I guess.”
Grace and Cooper both turn to look at Nathan and Lori: disheveled, blood-spattered, sneakers soaking in blood and ankle-deep in body parts, Nathan’s one arm sagging from the weight of the beer and the other slung over Lori’s shoulder.
“WHAT THE HELL IS THIS SHIT?!” he screams, flailing the beer around in a wide circle
Cooper looks confused. “Who are you?”
“Who am I?” An incredulous Nathan swings his arm off of Lori and takes a few shuffling steps in Cooper’s direction. “WHO AM I? I am goddamn stockroom swing shift, that is who am I. And I demand an answer to my damn question!”
Still confused and a bit concerned, Cooper turns to Grace, who looks back at him with a look of exhaustion, exasperation…and, Lori thinks, just a hint of worry.
But before either of them can address Nathan’s demands, an all-too-familiar skittering sound is heard, faint but definitely present and in the general vicinity of the restaurant on the other side of the entryway.
“Let’s go!” Grace pushes all of them in the opposite direction, the bouncing white beam of her headlamp the only light in the otherwise complete darkness.