"Now run," whispered Stacey before she darted into her home. What I thought was a goodnight, maybe a third-date kiss, became a wholly unromantic sprint. I stumbled through rooms with no lights on, with her screaming at the top of her lungs about how I had to run faster and faster. Before I knew it we were panting and laughing, sitting against the locked bedroom door. She was so glad we made it that we had sex for the first time. Even with the delight of fresh fingers and lips I could not focus. Instead what I felt as we cuddled, naked and nested in sheets, was fear; I wondered what was in her head, or perhaps, what was in her house. She didn't let me leave until dawn.
I didn't return to Stacey's place for three more dates. "I get nervous about people coming over," she said on date four, and I chalked it up to shame about the mess of things. "You know I always had a love for volleyball, at least I did," she said on date five, and I guessed she missed taking a jog with a friend. "You never know how to break the ice with new people. I know the feeling. I always try to make everything push over the edge, you know? I want to see someone show their willingness to be themselves before I do." By the sixth date I figured it was just for the rush. It easily topped every awkward porch-front kiss I had experienced before, which was one and a half. When I told her that her laugh was just polite.
About a month in, Stacey invited me back over. I wore sneakers just in case, maybe to make a joke and run a little lap through the kitchen and dining room, and make a tour of it. When we got there she placed a key in the front door, looked at me, and asked, "Ready?"
"To run. Every time. Only way to be safe."
I trampled my way through her house, all but the doorways a curtain of pitch-black, and wished we could perhaps come before sundown next time. Again we sat and caught our breath in the bedroom, and again we had sex, and it only felt stranger. When Stacey had propped herself on a stool by the windowsill to take a cigarette, I made my move.
"So are we just staying up here tonight?"
"Oh," she said, switching the way she crossed her bare, long legs, "I figured you would have noticed it the second time through."
Her adamant face made me wonder about how close I had parked my car, but I waited for the punch line. Nights before, at taverns and movies and walks through Chinatown, she was deadpan in her humor. I would lean close to read price tags, until my face nearly touched the window, and she would tell me the glass wasn't for sale.
"Can I ask for elaboration?" I asked.
"You may." Stacey took a long drag on her cigarette, letting the smoke drip up her face.
"You can hear it, if you try," she said, staring across the street, "It's very real. It'll kill me dead, I know it. I feel those long fingers every time." She seemed to disappear a little.
I didn't adjust how I sat, or ran, and to that she smiled. "You're still here. I thought you'd think I was crazy."
It's very real. It'll kill me dead, I know it. I feel those long fingers every time.
I would be a fool to think fears are rare. My very own little sister, complete with night terrors, had tormented me for years in our childhood apartment, where we had the misfortune of sharing a room for far too long. I would stand, all lights on, in the middle of the room, looking around with a bat, until Caley would pass out from the exhaustion of shaking under her quilt.
"I can go check for it," I said, "I can show you there is no monster, that it's all up here." I touched a finger to my temple.
The room shook when she stood. "No you won't."
"If you get shredded, it'll be on me. Don't you dare."
I stood too. "It'll be fine, trust me. I can help."
Her hand clamped my arm, and Stacey stared with full eyes at the door. Tears started to sprinkle onto her bare collarbone.
I walked to the door, dragging her behind me, hands still glued to my flesh. I pulled on my clothes haphazardly as I took the door-handle.
"Are you insane?" she asked, "Just listen to me."
I didn't, and I walked out of her room. The door shut behind me and a lock went click. Muffled sobbing now underpinned the silent moaning of the two-story home. There was another bedroom and a bathroom, doors all ajar. Step by step, I felt the eeriness of it all. The heavy thick blanket of darkness, and windows placed in such ways that no lamps outside gave much illumination. I figured, light switches, those were the answer. When I reached the living room, as I could feel by big, velvet shapes, I ran fingers about the walls until I found a switch.
I flicked it, and nothing happened.
I did again and again, up and down, and wondered if this is what my sister saw under her covers so many times. It was suffocating, and a gentle coolness had begun to stroke my neck. I spun, and spun again, and backed through an archway into a dining table. I began to flail my arms in semi-martial movements, here and there, just in case something was there. My toes dug into the floorboards with each step, and I found myself willingly rushing about, trying every switch. No, no and no. None of them worked.
I spun, and spun again, and backed through an archway into a dining table. I began to flail my arms in semi-martial movements, here and there, just in case something was there.
I considered the front door, but my shoes were still upstairs. As I jogged, then ran, towards the steps, the goosebumps on the entirety of my skin began to wrap tight, until the pressure of unknown shapes and forms scraped deep in the rippled tissues of my core. A hand, long-fingered, grabbed me and held me back, and another turned me around. I was trapped, and I scrounged around my pocket for my lighter. Arms crushing in the grip, face wet with an unseen, moaning breathing, and the deafening rumble of organic moving parts pressed against me, I sparked the flame.
In the little light I saw an inverted nose, surrounded by bushel hairs and two, wide-set eyes. Before I could scream, the creature let go and gasped a human gasp. I couldn't help but pause my terror, and heard the monster, very real and only imaginable in nightmares, speak to me in a light male voice, like that of an English teacher.
"I am so sorry."
The long fingers waved apologetically as I stood there, heartbeat threatening to burst my fingertips and the flame between us. I couldn't deduce the breadth of him, but he was already crouched to compromise with the ceiling. He placed his ribcage fingers together in a small bow. "Please forgive me, I thought you were Stacey. She normally doesn't have anyone over."
I brushed myself off to seem casual, but I could tell I was shaking my bones into a fine powder. "I would guess she brings no one over because of you."
The creature, his neck beneath matted fur bending between articulations of limbs, gave a shrug.
"Are you keeping the lights off?" I asked, nodding at the ceiling.
"Oh yes, my apologies again. That's me too. Don't want her turning on the lights, you know?"
My turn to shrug, feeling some comfort; his eyes weren't feral, but drowsy and half-closed. "You don't seem as dangerous as she says. She is so terrified up there, you know?"
"I know, right?" he said, "I'm just her husband."
My organs leapt together, and landed on all the wrong shelves. The monster then began to make a noise; a rhythmic gulping sound that I then realized was held-back laughter.
"I'm just kidding. Don't worry, I'm just here to eat her, not you." He held out his hand. "Sebastian. Nice to meet a friend of Stacey's."
I'm just here to eat her, not you.
"Marcus," I said, going with my full name for once. His violin bow fingers were slimy, like they had been dipped in Brie, but I gave them a good shake. "I am going to head upstairs then. Hopefully you won't be breaking down the door."
Sebastian shook his head, layered thorns swishing. "No, that's against protocol. I'll just eat her if she comes out." I found myself laughing. He didn't agree. "Don't let her see you laughing. It would be unfair, get her off guard. I'll really eat her." The last few words were serious, serious as Stacey.
That night, Stacey just told me again and again how brave I was, that it gave her hope. I asked her about the monster and she told me well until after I had fallen asleep about all her close calls and battles, once even feeling her arm, wrist-deep, down the beast’s throat before beating it away with a small toaster. I could imagine her dread, facing Sebastian's apparent hunger, and decided to help her.
"Did you see it?" she asked, bringing me out of half-sleep, her words rumbling across my chest.
"I think so," I said, and I felt her smile.
It only took two days for Stacey to bring me back again, this time during the day. I wandered about her house, seeing the deep brown dining table and the green sofa as a new, fearless world. Every cabinet, I opened; every closet, I peeked inside. When she wondered what I was looking for, I said I was trying to guess where he, the monster, lived. She laughed like it was a good joke, and changed topic to her closest friend, who had pressured her to move to the coast ever since she finished college.
Every cabinet, I opened; every closet, I peeked inside. When she wondered what I was looking for, I said I was trying to guess where he, the monster, lived. She laughed like it was a good joke.
"I felt that the best way into analytics was through office work, not a masters," she said, being herself in her own home, plopping into her one big chair.
"Well if you head to a city, you'll have less of an issue, I would think." I waved my arms around in an attempt to be spooky as I said it. "Leave your monster behind."
"Oh no, Mark," she said, leaning forward, "I have always had that around. Always. Since as far back as I can remember. It follows me."
I nodded and let our talking drift back into the trading of younger stories, until the lights began to flicker on their own; the sun had almost set, and a rodent-like fear had squeezed through Stacey's persona. "Let's go," she said, pulling towards the stairs. Short of the first landing, I stopped her and said I was going to make a phone call. She nodded, visibly shaking, and let go. "Be quick."
Standing alone in the center of the living room, I said, "It's me, Marcus." There was a slithering sound and a chair somewhere made sliding noises. I pulled out a small flashlight I had brought with me and turned it on. Sebastian was sitting on the big chair where Stacey had been, carapace bent up about his stomach and vestigial, rotting arms huddled close.
Sebastian was sitting on the big chair where Stacey had been, carapace bent up about his stomach and vestigial, rotting arms huddled close.
"How are you, Marcus?" he asked. He looked around with his cat-like eyes, "My goodness, it gets freezing in here at nights, wouldn't you agree?"
"Stacey keeps the heat up in her room."
Somehow Sebastian snapped two of his spider-leg fingers crisply. "Darn." He leaned back and looked around. "What brings me the pleasure of your company?"
"I don't know. I felt like talking to you, I guess. I tried to find you during the day, earlier."
Sebastian just laughed, that same laugh that sounded like an audience of small creatures eating a brick wall. "Well, do you think Stacey is planning on joining us?"
"I don't think so. No eating tonight, I'm afraid."
"Well," said Sebastian, polishing some of the horns on his arms with nail-less thumbs, "do you like ping pong?"
I said yes, and he took me down to the basement. He felt it was warmer down there, and we played, back and forth, for at least an hour. Sebastian was actually quite good, for a creature with extra eyes and probably extra depth perception, and I was easily handicapped by only seeing via the flashlight perched on the laundry machine.
"So how long have you been at this?" I asked, "The eating-people business."
"Since Stacey was in grade-school. I was assigned when her friend put her in a locker."
"Assigned? Is eating Stacey your job?"
"You can say that. Also, five-nothing." Some tendrils shook in a semblance of a victory dance.
I moved about some moving boxes, still full of things, to find the ball. "You know, my sister used to think there was a monster in her room. Years ago, when she was little."
"Is that so? Maybe one of us, then. What's her name?"
I paused; I didn't want this beast to find a new victim, to track her down and bring back her childish phobias, all real. At the same time, we were also playing ping pong in a basement.
"Wait," he said, catching a ball in a lobster claw, a puzzling feat, "Is your last name Gardner? Is your sister perchance Caley Gardner?"
I, in the presence of this abomination, felt fear again. "Yes?"
"That's just fantastic. What a small world," he said with something that resembled glee vibrating in his antennae, "I am sorry for stopping that round, you can have the point."
He returned the ball, but I didn't serve immediately. "Yes, sorry," he continued, "I didn't mean to be so positive about that. My cousin Rachel worked with her. Brief arrangement, Caley's doing. So Rachel never got to eat her. That's good news for you, I would guess."
I served. "I always thought she was just scared of the dark. Like, the normal sort of scared, so I didn't quite care."
"I don't understand what you mean."
"I thought it wasn't a real fear."
"Why did you have to meet a monster to think her fear is real?" He scored again, and the ball bounced into the light, sending it to the ground. Muffled, the bulb shattered.
"I think that means I should head up." I felt my way around, finding the stairs.
"Good night Marcus," Sebastian said, "And don't let the Stacey bite."
Stacey had fallen asleep. I lay awake and considered my conversation with Sebastian, and how good he was at ping pong. I finally nodded off, only to be shaken awake by her, joyous and grateful. She asked about the phone call, about the darkness, about how I made it out alive. "You have a ping pong table?" was all I could ask.
"You were in the basement?"
I explained that during my call I wandered around a bit. I also explained I was sorry to snoop.
"I don't go down much. Monster and all. The movers put some boxes down there too, and I never can get them. The lights don't work." She dragged me downstairs to a waffle-iron shaped like a ring of hearts. "Now, either we are eating a million waffles and watching cartoons, or I am eating a million waffles and watching cartoons."
I let go of Sebastian for the better part of a few days, with work and the news and all. I didn't spend a night until the next Saturday. When I did, I interrupted the conversation to ask her, "So, should I go down there? And get those boxes?"
Stacey's face went grim, but not as much as usual. She had grown used to the subject, dragged in and out of the dark parts of her memory again and again.
"If you'd like to."
I thought for a moment about the creature I met, Sebastian the gentleman. Sebastian, the something that had become a someone, and the someone who could even be a friend. He was so harmless.
"You should come with me."
Her eyes etched betrayal across my face, line by line a poem of disappointment.
"No, wait, before you say anything, believe me, I think it's okay. I'll be with you the whole time." I held her close, I had a larger flashlight, and it was already in my hand, pressed against her stomach. "We'll have light, it'll be fine. You have me."
She kept shaking her head, yet I moved her towards the door. Her body shivered harder and harder, trying to back its way into other realities, worlds where this wasn't happening.
"Please, Stacey," I said, "Please trust me. You can do this."
She stopped shaking, for only a moment, and let her feet move on their own. She opened the door, and waited for me to go first. I guided us down the creaking stairs, light blunt and strong on wooden beams.
There was no motion, or screaming, or long fingers. We stepped, bit by bit, over detritus and cement, to where the boxes lay stacked and cobwebbed. The harsh beam of the flashlight slid over the Ping-Pong table and empty shelves, onto a set of cardboard boxes. I lay a hand on it and forced an extra-broad smile for Stacey.
"You see," I reminded her, "It's okay. We made it."
She took a deep breath, and it faltered. Dowel joints covered in cactus hairs wrapped about Stacey and began to lift her away. She screamed, I screamed, the little basement a cacophony of echoing terror. The flashlight rolled away, the scattered brightness blinding me and illuminating nothing. I heard Stacey charge up the steps, the sounds of scratching, gunshots, and breaking bones churning past me, intent on consuming her. The basement door slammed shut, her sharp and lost cries of anguish again above me, made supple through the door. I grabbed the flashlight and held it up to Sebastian's face, whose peaceful and curious arrays of teeth pondered why I stood so close.
"I am not sure what you are looking at," Sebastian said, "I told you I would eat her."
"But why? Stop, just don't try. It would be easy."
Sebastian made a warm foghorn sigh and straightened out some tongue-like protrusions on his cheeks, smoothing them back.
"You seem to forget, Mr. Marcus Gardner, that I am still a monster, and furthermore, her monster."
Sebastian made a warm foghorn sigh and straightened out some tongue-like protrusions on his cheeks, smoothing them back.
I tried to say more, but all that came out was unreasonable hot air. He tilted the brim of his mane in a farewell, and backed into the darkness. Running as fast as I could, galloping up steps, I found Stacey in her bed under every sheet she could find. I crawled in from the foot end, and curled up beside her.
"I'm sorry," I said, and I held her hand and talked to her about window-shopping, and old sports injuries, and all that good stuff, until her shaking began to wane. I held her as best I could, and didn't go looking for Sebastian again until she led the way.
Since leaving New York City, Jono Naito enjoys their time in the Hudson Valley as a writer, chemist, and educator. They live in a yellow house with a curious bunny, an arrogant bird, and their partner in crime. Learn more serious things about them at jononaito.com.
Illustrated by Keit Osadchuk.