by JESSICA SEYMOUR
feel the sleeping bag shift and move. I feel the brush of a hand against my arm, cold breath on my neck, the slow slide of sweat along my cheek. I feel my muscles tense and my heart vibrate as fear latches onto me. I can’t open my eyes. If I don’t open them, I won’t see it. I won’t see it. I can’t open my eyes.
The air shifts. My breath comes in short, sharp gasps. I grip my torch so tight that my fingers tremble, and the whateveritis behind me pauses. I can’t open my eyes. Maybe I can blind the whateveritis and run. I shouldn’t have slept in a fucking bag there’s no way to run when you’re in a bag.
I’m going to turn. One… two… three… three and a half… The whateveritis hasn’t moved.
My muscles have tensed so much that, by the time I have the courage to turn it’s in a sudden burst of action. I swing around, pull my arm and torch out of the sleeping bag, and shine it behind me. Nothing happens. No sound. No movement.
I’m surrounded by rows and rows of books, sleeping on an ugly grey carpet, and waving my torch weakly at nothing. There’s nothing. I’m still alone.
“Jesus,” I whisper, rubbing a hand through my sweaty hair and taking long, deep breaths. My arms and legs are tensed for a fight, and my heart is still pounding so hard that I can hear it over my own rattling gasps. My blood feels like it’s got bubbles in it – it’s all thin and fizzy and not quite thick enough to do its job.
I don’t want to cry. I want to cry.
“Be a man,” I tell myself, but myself doesn’t listen because the rattling gasps turn into wet ones and before I know it my vision is blurred by salt water.
Rubbing my eyes with both hands, I push myself out of the sleeping bag and turn off the torch, waiting a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dull moonlight streaming through the windows. I can hear the screaming, grinding engines of the Nibbler riders as they drive past the abandoned library I’ve made my home. They never come in here. Now that the world has ended, no one has any interest in the library. Not that there was much interest before.
I have to piss. My muscles feel hollow and light now that the adrenaline has stopped pumping through my blood. I haven’t slept through the night in years, but it’s gotten worse since the world ended. I find my shirt under one of the bookshelves, pull it over my increasingly skinny torso, and feel my way through the stacks towards the stairs.
Mum would hate how skinny I’ve gotten. She used to pile up my plate at dinner after a bad day. The medication I was on at the time made it tough to work up an appetite, but she would’ve strapped me down and fed me through a hose if she’d had to. I shouldn’t think about her.
I jog down the stairs and out the back, pausing for a moment to listen. The Nibblers aren’t discrete. I can hear them screeching through the streets, but they don’t sound close. If they were, I’d hear their whoops of joy as they chased down whoever they were chasing. Some nights I wonder if they’re just figments of my imagination – something my subconscious cooked up along with the whateveritis to make my waking hours just as horrifying as my sleeping ones. But the corpses they leave behind look real enough when the sun rises. The stench of decay and diesel feels real.
Deciding that I am as safe as I am going to get, I step up to the edge of the library garden and lower my pants enough to piss into the bushes.
A screech cuts through the darkness. It’s not very close, but I’m still shaking from the dreams so I tuck myself in quickly and duck back into the library. I close and lock the door, lean my forehead against it while I wait for my legs to work again, and then make my way back up to the first floor where all my stuff is.
It’s too dangerous to have my torch on at this time of night. Someone could see me, and if they can see me then they can find me. I tried camping out in one of the conference rooms on my first night there, but I ended up spending twelve hours huddled in a ball, hyperventilating, and thinking that someone could see the light under the door.
Instead of turning a light on and reading myself to sleep, I stare into the dark, waiting for the whateveritis to come for me again. I wrap myself in my sleeping bag, ignoring how my eyes itch with lack of sleep, and settle in to wait for the sun.
Nibblers don’t come out during the day. I don’t know why they prefer the dark – maybe it’s easier to live with yourself when you can’t see what you’re doing to your victims. I used to wonder what had happened to them to make them turn so bad, but after a while I realised that they’d never actually turned bad. They were always bad. The end of the world just made it easier for them to get away with it.
Sometimes I fantasise about letting them take me.
I usually spend the day reading, with the heavy, watchful weight of the whateveritis perched on my shoulders, but today I have to get supplies. It’s harder to ignore reality when I’m strapping knives to various parts of my body. I dry-swallow some Lexapro before I leave my cold, safe library.
My first stop is the pharmacy, after a pit stop hiding in some bushes because I heard a noise. It turned out to be a magpie digging around in an old bin. There are so many bins around, spilling their contents over the road, flooding the streets with filth. I think they were knocked over back when everyone was still panicking, but to be honest I was panicking a bit myself so I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should’ve. The sun is hanging low over the city skyline. The Nibblers have messed up the roads and there are potholes everywhere. Smashed cars line the street, torn apart during the riots, their stripped carcasses left to rot. Buildings loom above me, blocking me in and casting long shadows that are easy to hide in as I creep slowly towards the one pharmacy I haven’t already stripped.
I let myself inside.
It’s so dark. For a moment I panic because my eyes don’t adjust and the shadows start to reach out for me, black tendrils groping. I have to step back into the light, close my eyes and count the fingers on my hands and the toes on my feet a couple of times. Then I turn and count the number of buildings that I can see, and the number of windows, and the number of gaping holes where their windows ought to be. When I turn back my heart is beating slower and my eyes adjust to the darkness faster. I can see the ransacked counters and overturned shelves.
I stop thinking that I might pee myself and move on shaking legs towards the back counter where they used to keep the anti-depressants. I am very aware of the sound my shoes are making on the cracked linoleum. This pharmacy got pretty much picked clean when the rioting started, like all the others in town.
“It’s ok,” I tell myself as I push my way to the back of the room and start scanning what’s left of the shelves. My counsellor used to tell me to keep positive thoughts at the forefront of my mind. I don’t know if she meant for me to talk to myself, but who’s gonna know? “It’s ok because I’m going to get some meds and it doesn’t matter that it’s dark as fuck and there are Nibblers everywhere because I’m gonna be out of here so fucking quick –”
I find the Lexapro and I feel the stress and worry that was straining my muscles start to flow out of me. Two packets. Four months’ worth.
“Good, excellent, ten points to me.”
I slip the meds into my backpack and slip back out of the pharmacy, heading for the camping store on the outskirts of the city. Most people looted the supermarket, but I’ve found the camping stores to be the best source of non-perishable food and other useful stuff. I don’t really know why I’m doing this – finding food, finding meds, avoiding the Nibblers – when everyone I knew is dead.
I’m just surviving, not living. There’s no living in a dead world.
Halfway back to the library, I freeze. There are voices on the air – not the kind I usually hear, full of hatred and bloodlust. These are quiet and sound just as scared as me.
I still run down an alley and jump behind a dumpster. I huddle in the corner behind a rancid bag of what I think used to be potato skins and try to keep my breathing quiet as I hear them approach. The voices are accompanied by footsteps. Two, I think. Two pairs of footsteps. As they get closer, I can hear what they’re saying.
“So, there I was: covered in butter, with a terrier under each arm, surrounded by Nibblers –” A splash. “– what the fuck did I just step in?”
“We need to get you a new cane,” another voice, young and male like the first, says. His words echo around me despite the fact that they are spoken in a whisper.
“Wouldn’t’ve lost it if you hadn’t let the Nibblers catch you,” the first one says.
“You’re right,” the second one says. “This is my fault.”
I try to huddle down, terribly aware of how cowardly I’m being – but my fight or flight response has been too heavily weighted towards flight for me to do anything but hide now. I wish I could push myself out to meet these voices. They’re not Nibblers. They seem to have been running from Nibblers. But every time I try to push myself away from the wall I’ve pressed myself against, and the bag of used-to-be-potatoes that’s making me sick to my stomach, the long black tendrils of fear wrap around my shoulders and hold me back.
“It’s getting dark,” the second voice says. I look up. It’s still morning, but there are angry clouds in the sky with a green tinge to them that warn of hailstorms. “We should get inside.”
“I just wish you’d warn me when I’m about to walk through something gross and slimy –”
“Call me that one more time, white boy!”
“You don’t even know that I’m white.”
“You sound white. Your voice veritably drips with unchecked cultural privilege.”
They pass my dumpster. My breath hitches and I hold it, my heart is beating so loudly in my chest that I think it might burst out. There are two guys. College-age like me. I didn’t think that there were any of us left! One is holding the other by the crook of his elbow, the meagre light from above flashing on the cochlear implant which is just visible in his messy blond hair. The other guy, the one being led through the alley, has dark glasses and skin like coffee beans.
The guy in the glasses freezes. He tilts his head. “Someone’s here,” he says.
My whole body goes into hyperdrive. I can feel my chest tightening like it’s suddenly two sizes too small. They know I’m here. They’re going to find me and turn me over to the Nibblers. The cold black tendrils are soaking through my skin and I try to bat them away, but they’re too tight and too fast, and they wrap around me like they’ve just been waiting for the chance to drag me down.
The dumpster moves and I scream.
“Don’t – please – leave me alone!”
The whateveritis perched on my shoulder grips even more tightly. I feel the fear like a physical weight in my stomach as I stumble back, leaning as far into the wall as I can, aware that I’ve cornered myself but not thinking clearly enough to figure a way out.
The blonde one jumps backward. The one with the glasses raises an eyebrow.
“Doesn’t sound like a Nibbler,” he says.
“Doesn’t look like one either,” the blond replies.
I can’t speak because I’m too busy shaking. My whole body trembles so hard that I can hear my teeth chattering. I can see their lips moving, but the whateveritis slows their voices down, so I don’t hear what they’re saying until their lips have stopped moving, like a TV show with wonky audio that’s two seconds behind. My blood is fizzing again and my stomach heaves like I might vomit, but nothing comes out.
“Hey, it’s cool – we’re cool. Don’t be scared.”
“He sounds really freaked out.”
“He’s shaking, Ras. What do we do?”
“Is it a panic attack? You’re not supposed to touch people if they’re having a panic attack.”
The blond, who was reaching towards me, pulls his hands sharply back like he’s afraid he’ll get bitten. “Sorry, sorry –”
“I’m okay,” I say. My voice comes out like a wheeze but I feel a sudden, powerful urge to comfort them, to let them know that they’re not to blame for what’s happening. “I’m – I just need –” The whateveritis coils tightly around my throat. Speech is impossible.
“Sure man, take your time,” the blond says, looking up and giving the dark clouds the stink eye. “Just, you know, it’s probably gonna hail soon.”
The guy in the glasses jumps. “You didn’t say anything about hail!”
“Ras, there’s a distraught man at your feet. A little sympathy.”
Ras grumbles and stuffs his hands in his pockets, turning his head towards the sky in a way that makes me think he’s not really seeing it. When he looks back down, his head is turned just to the left of where I am.
I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth, like my therapist taught me. Mum used to hold me whenever I got like this. She’d wrap me in her arms and press her chest into my back so that I could feel her warm, steady heartbeat. She’d breathe long and slow, and I’d breathe with her, and she’d draw me away from the lingering dark and the coiling, uncoiling black fingers groping towards me. But she’s not here and thinking about her only makes my heart race faster. Remembering what happened to her. Remembering –
The black tendrils tighten, loosen, tighten again, so tight that I can feel them cutting into my skin, pouring their inky gunk into the wounds, and I want to cut them out but there’s nothing sharp enough nearby.
My breathing starts to even out a little. I imagine my body filling with black and then having it pour out of my eyes and nostrils. It hurts to breathe but I force myself to keep doing it. I force myself to survive this. Eventually, after what feels like hours, I come back to myself. I’m still crouched behind the dumpster. There’s no black tendrils; no marks on my skin from where they’d cut in.
Two men are standing over me, with identical troubled looks. My hands are shaking and the stench from the garbage is definitely going to make me puke if I stay there much longer, so I stagger away and stand up, running my hands through my too-long hair.
“Sorry – I’m sorry –”
“It’s okay,” Ras says, looking to my right. “We thought you were a Nibbler for a second there.”
“I’m not,” I reply. “I promise.”
Black tendrils flex on my shoulders, but they’re dormant. The whateveritis is waiting.
The blond nods. “We promise we’re not Nibblers, too,” he says. He holds out his hand to shake and I stare at it for a moment. It’s been months since anyone has tried to touch me without wanting it to hurt. “I’m Simon,” he says. Then he points to the implant on his scalp. “Severe hard of hearing.”
“Ben,” I reply. After a second longer of staring at the hand, waiting for him to lash out, I cautiously take it. Then I point to my own head. “Panic disorder and anxiety.” I think about adding PTSD, but it’s just a hunch. The therapists all fled before I could get a proper diagnosis.
“That there is Ras – born blind.”
Ras waves and doesn’t reach out to take my hand. Instead, he clasps his hands in front of his crotch and leans back on his heels. “Well, look at us all one big, happy, not quite ‘all there’ family.”
“What? It’s not offensive when the blind guy says it.”
I shake my head to clear the cobwebs and try to remember my manners. “Thanks for – um, not touching me.” I pause. “Before, I mean.” The whateveritis had been waiting for someone to touch me. I could tell.
“Hey, no problem,” Simon says. He looks back up at the clouds and I copy him. The sky is getting darker.
In the distance, I can hear the faint coil of diesel engines warming up.
Ras freezes. He spits out a word I don’t understand – something like ‘alqaraf’, maybe, it sounds like a dog coughing – and says: “We need to get inside.”
I’m still trembling from the attack before, and for some reason that makes me calmer. The whateveritis is too tired to come for me now. I look at Simon, but he clearly can’t hear what’s making Ras nervous, and he doesn’t need to because one look at Ras’s face seems to tell him all that he needs to know.
“Where are you staying?” I ask. I’m surprised at how steady my voice sounds. A little husky too, because I haven’t spoken to anyone besides myself in so long and now I’m self-conscious about what it might sound like.
Simon and Ras share a look. Or rather, Simon looks at Ras, who looks in Simon’s direction.
“We were staying in a garage off of George Street,” Simon says. “But –”
“That location has been compromised,” Ras finishes.
“Okay,” I reply. “There’s a library nearby that the Nibblers usually ignore. I’ve been staying there.”
Simon takes Ras by the elbow and gestures for me to lead the way. My knees are still shaking but I force myself to move like nothing is wrong. This will be good, I tell myself as I walk. I’ve been alone too long. I need to talk to people – people who don’t want to kill me, who aren’t going to leave me behind when they figure out how to hotwire a car and jet off to the secluded countryside. I mean, they could leave me behind, but something tells me that they would have left the city by now if they could. Something is keeping them here, dodging Nibblers and huddling together in abandoned parking garages instead of running to the relative safety of the countryside.
I touch my shoulder where the black tendrils are coiled. The whateveritis waiting, purring almost. I can’t feel it, not really, but I know it’s there. Like the awareness of your shadow on a sunny day – no physical presence, but it still manages to make itself felt. I feel a gentle wave of fear in the pit of my stomach. What if they – but no. I’m better now. I’m on my meds again and there’s two of them. They’ll take care of each other if I can’t keep the black at bay.
Mum used to cry when I woke up screaming in the middle of the night. I used to think that she could see the whateveritis too – that the creeping, groping black tendrils had tried to take her as well, and that she was crying because she was scared. She was scared, but not because of that. It wasn’t until a few years into my diagnosis that I realised that they were tears of empathy, not sympathy. She couldn’t see the whateveritis. Not at first.
Ras and Simon can’t see it either. I hope that means that it won’t bother me as long as I’m with them. I lead them up to the second floor of the library just as the hailstorm begins to build up properly – ice pellets lash at the windows and fall in heavy chunks to the street below, making my ears ache and my whole body tense up with each strike.
Ras says that he can smell the books but that’s all the use he can get out of them. Simon promises to read to him if he can go five minutes without being a pillock. I want to ask how they met. How they’d come together in this brutal, man-eat-man wasteland, a deaf man leading a blind man, or maybe the other way around, but I don’t. That feels like a second date kind of question.
“Nice setup you’ve got here,” Simon says appreciatively when I show them the little nest I’ve created for myself near the periodicals. My supplies heaped together in one corner; my sleeping bag stretched out on the ground; a torch next to the travel pillow.
“Looks great to me,” Ras adds with a shit-eating grin.
“Ras, I’m gonna give you one more chance to shut the fuck up,” Simon says.
I settle down in my sleeping bag and pull the latest round of goodies out of my backpack, tossing the new medication into the supply heap and offering Simon and Ras some of the army rations I’d scrounged before I met up with them.
“It’s not much, but it’s protein,” I say.
Simon eagerly accepts, taking two packets and pressing one into Ras’s hand. “Thanks mate – we had to leave all our stuff behind when the Nibblers found us.”
“Including my cane,” Ras says darkly.
Simon winces. “I said I was sorry –” he begins, but Ras waves him off.
“Find your chill, Simon – I’ll get a new one.”
I pick a chicken flavoured army ration for myself, though I know from experience that the flavour will only vaguely resemble chicken. We eat in silence for a while. The hail falls harder on the windows, banging like a thousand angry fists. The whateveritis on my shoulder curls its long black fingers around my neck. Apparently my bravado from earlier is starting to wear off. I debate whether it would be safe to take more medication.
I never know what’s going to set off an attack. There’s no general trigger or scenario that I can avoid in order to stay calm. It’s just a constant awareness that I could fall apart at any time, and that once it starts it won’t stop until I’m swept up in a wave of panic – fighting against it like a drowning man fighting a riptide.
“So how come you didn’t leave?” Ras asks through a mouthful of protein goo. Simon rolls his eyes at the other man, but makes no comment.
I realise that he’s asking me and hastily swallow my mouthful. “Oh – ah – I was going to, but –” But Mum died and I couldn’t push myself to take the step. But leaving wouldn’t fix the world or make things better. But here in the city I’ve got a reason to be scared all the time, but out in the countryside, where the rest of the refugees have gone, I’m just a broken man who sometimes falls apart for no reason. “I guess I just didn’t,” I finish lamely.
Simon nods. “I was supposed to go with a bunch of kids from my church group,” he says. There’s something dark behind his eyes that make me wonder if he has a whateveritis on his shoulder too. I feel my own stretch out, and then recoil. No kinship there. Just a dark memory. “They – well, they got eaten. I hid. Ran into this wanker a few days later,” He jerks his thumb in Ras’s direction, who apparently doesn’t need to see to know that he is being insulted because he raises his middle finger back at Simon without even pausing in his meal. “We’ve kept ourselves busy.”
I nod along. I know there’s nothing I can say to that. Nothing that can unmake the truth. The Nibblers, which was what the news called them back when the broadcasts were still running, had run rampant through the streets during the last few days of the riots. Back when people weren’t sure if they were going to stay in the city and wait it out, or flee to the countryside where there were farms and livestock and more room to spread out. The Nibblers had been the deciding factor for a lot of them.
Ras shifts, frowning. Simon is watching him out of the corner of his eye.
“You don’t have to –”
“It’s fine,” Ras tells him, running his hand through his hair. He takes off his sunglasses and for the first time I can see the dull, lifeless eyes resting unseeing in his face. “So my mum and dad thought I was a bit of a disappointment, yeah? Blind baby and all that. So when Armageddon comes and they need to figure out how many mouths they can afford to feed, they decide that little Rashid probably won’t be much use in the long run. Best to cut him loose now and save themselves the trouble.”
I put my ration down. I’m not hungry anymore.
“They left without you,” I say.
Ras grins humourlessly. “They tried to leave without me,” he says. “They’re dead now.”
“My mum’s dead too,” I tell them both.
We take a moment to share the ache in our chests. The whateveritis around my shoulders seems to stretch out, trying to encircle the group, and I close my eyes because I don’t want to watch it. I don’t want to see it. I can feel my breath coming faster and squeeze my hands into fists to keep myself present. Before, back when there was electricity freely available, I would squeeze ice cubes. It was better than cutting; cutting left marks which made Mum cry when she looked at them. The ice cubes would hurt like a mother fucker, but they made me focus. Now, there’s nothing but the slow burn of my fingernails pushing into my palms.
Ras and Simon probably think my mum was killed by Nibblers. I don’t know how to explain that she wasn’t. They’d ask how she did die, and then I’d have to tell them, and then they’d know exactly how crazy these last few months have made me. I shouldn’t have lingered here, I think – it’s only made the night terrors worse. Made them real even in the daytime. I wonder if there’s some kind of anti-psychotic I could scrounge from the pharmacy that could help balance me out, but I’m afraid to take anything the doctor didn’t prescribe. I don’t want to make things worse. But surely anything would be better than this?
When I open my eyes again, I can see Simon looking at me with concern.
“I’m not going to freak out again,” I say, more to myself than to him.
“You look a little pale,” he says.
Ras snorts. “I think you look fine.”
“Thanks, I –” Then I get the joke. It’s in poor taste, but I laugh anyway, because what is there to do when a blind man makes fun of his own condition but laugh? Simon snickers as well and I can tell he’s not faking it.
“Finish your lunch, you little shit,” Simon says. There’s a hint of affection in his voice, and I take a moment to really consider the way that Simon’s looking at Ras. Then I decide it’s none of my business and I turn my attention back to the army ration in front of me. “I’ll read to you when you’re done.”
“Joy of joys,” Ras replies.
The hail is still failing. With any luck, that’ll keep the Nibblers in tonight. It’s one thing to go out in the rain – there’s a certain ambiance to rain-murder which I’m sure they would appreciate – but it’s another thing to go out during a hailstorm and wind up getting beaned by an egg-sized ball of ice on the off chance that you’ll find some prey. There’s obviously still other people in the city. People like Simon, Ras and me, who didn’t leave for whatever reason, but no one is foolish enough to venture out in a hail storm. At least, I hope they’re not.
We finish our rations. Ras and Simon’s heads have started to droop. I take a spare blanket out of my supply heap and pass it over to them. “You guys should get some rest if you’ve been running away from Nibblers all night,” I tell them. I nod to the sleeping bag. “Use whatever you want. I’ll keep watch.”
They’re too tired to protest. They seem like the kind of guys who would have protested if they hadn’t been so tired. As it is, they take the blanket gratefully, unzip the sleeping bag so that it is folded out and open, and cover themselves with both. Within minutes, Ras is snoring. Simon reaches up without opening his eyes and switches off his hearing aid before burying his face in the pillow.
I turn away and lean back against the stack of books behind me. When they wake up, I’ll ask them if they went to college. I was a junior in psychology – I imagine that Ras would have been into music, and that Simon probably wanted to be a teacher, but I’d like to know for sure. Then we’ll talk about ways to get out of the city together, and the whateveritis will stay dormant on my shoulder, and Ras will make a joke that’s actually funny so that I can laugh like I haven’t laughed since I watched the life drain from Mum’s eyes.
With those thoughts lingering in the back of my consciousness, I allow my eyes to close.
It’s winding tight around me now, seeking vulnerable openings, cloying at my skin. I shiver. I try to push away. My neck hurts and my butt is numb but those are the least of my worries. Black, groping, long fingers stretch up and down me, not touching but not not touching. I can feel the ghost of it. Whateveritis coming to find me.
It’s dark. My eyes are closed, but it’s dark beyond that. I can hear, as though through a long tunnel, the sound of ice beating against glass, thunder, and someone snoring.
No, no, no, I think, not this time please I can’t see it happen again don’t let it happen again they’re innocent don’t hurt them don’t take them away please don’t hurt her don’t hurt her don’t hurt her.
I jerk awake. There’s no time to build up the sense of fear which leaves me spry as a cat. I’m groping around to the torch as I feel something brushing against the carpet next to my thigh, I feel something moving down my leg, out into the room, towards the snoring.
I turn the torch on. Thunder crashes outside but it’s lost in the sound of the hail against the window and my own heart pumping through my ears. I shine it down in time to see the long, black tendrils wrap around Simon’s blanket and sleeping bag covered ankle.
Ras jerks awake. He can’t see anything – not the light, not the whateveritis – but he shakes Simon awake and reaches over to turn the other man’s hearing aid on.
Simon looks over at me. Then he looks down at his ankle.
And he’s scrambling backwards. Pushing away from the nest of blankets and sleeping bag, and Ras is moving with him even though it’s all black to him.
The whateveritis is still groping blindly, searching with nothing but long fingers and a thirst which can’t be quenched. I’ve pressed myself against the bookshelf, watching helplessly as it moves closer to the other two.
Simon can see it. Mum could see it. The first time she saw it was the last time she saw anything. It wrapped itself around her while she was sleeping, choking the life out of her while I watched, screaming, trying to pull it back and realising that I couldn’t touch it, and that clawing at the black groping tendrils only led to angry red scratches on Mum’s throat and face.
Ras can’t see it, but he knows something is terribly wrong.
“What the ever-loving fuck is happening?”
“I don’t know –” Simon says, thrusting an arm out and pushing the other man behind him as the whateveritis pushes closer. “Shit, I don’t know – just get back!”
“Run!” I shout.
A flash of lightning from outside illuminates the whole room, and for a moment both Simon and I can see it. The massive, hulking figure lurking behind me. No longer coiled around my neck – it is huge and looming, kneeling down like the shadow of some massive beast, reaching out with long black tendrils, seeking Simon and Ras the way it sought Mum months ago. The lightning passes, the room goes black again, but the presence of the whateveritis is far stronger than any shadow.
“RUN!” I shout. My torchlight illuminates the black fingers as they continue to seek out ankles and throats.
Simon doesn’t need telling twice. He grabs Ras’s hand, pulls him up and sprints towards the stairs. The whateveritis isn’t fast. It coils and undulates, but it takes its time doing it, and when Simon and Ras reach the stairs Ras shouts: “What about Ben?”
But Simon doesn’t pause, doesn’t hesitate. That was Mum’s mistake. She wouldn’t leave without me. Simon pulls Ras with him down the stairs and out of sight.
When they’re gone, I let myself breathe again. I can still feel the whateveritis as it shrinks down and coils around my neck again, reaching down my chest and stomach.
My throat is raw with screaming, my chest is tight from where the tendrils are digging in, and I grip the torch like a lifeline. I can hear Simon and Ras’s frantic footsteps disappear, the sound of a door opening – the hail grows momentarily louder – before slamming shut. In the back of my mind, I hope that survive the night.
“Why won’t you just kill me?” I ask, letting my hoarse voice echo in the dark.
The whateveritis purrs at my throat.
Jessica Seymour is an early-career researcher and freelance writer based in Darwin, Australia. She enjoys writing in all genres, and her creative work can be found in Voiceworks Magazine and Gloom Cupboard. She loves to travel, sampling strange foods and stranger people, and discovering new corners of the world.
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