Friday, August 26, 2011
FICTION: Out on the Balcony By Philip Roberts
In the gloom of twilight Joseph reached towards the black metal railing. Down below him he watched what might’ve been a human trudge slowly down the sidewalk.
The overhang of thick branches and leaves added a second layer of darkness to the sidewalk that ran in-between the two buildings, but a lone lamp shined bright enough to assure Joseph it wasn’t poor lighting that twisted his view of whatever it was down below.
One arm of the misshapen form was far larger than the rest of the body and nearly dragged across the ground. Neither of the small legs that carried it looked like they would’ve been capable of holding the creature’s weight, and given its slow pace, Joseph didn’t think they were doing an adequate job.
Half of the thing’s head appeared to be absorbed into its massive, fleshy shoulder, but given the angle, Joseph couldn’t say for certain. Just as he couldn’t say what was wrong with its other arm, aware of only the fact that it had been ravaged by something, the dark, wet red of blood was visible even though the arm remained largely hidden behind the bulk of its body.
Right before it reached the small lamp jutting out of the sidewalk, the thing paused in its stride. Its entire body began to turn towards Joseph, the gleam of wet eyes just barely noticeable within deep sockets of flesh.
Joseph knocked the screen door off its track when he jerked his body back into his well-lit living room. He managed to close the sliding glass door with his foot, and swung it hard enough to send a deep bang reverberating through his mind.
Lying on the ground, the empty balcony and what lay beyond it just on the other side of a single piece of glass, Joseph did his best to avoid hyperventilating.
The first and most obvious question immediately came to him: had he actually seen that? His rattled mind couldn’t give him an adequate answer.
To his left his computer screen remained on. Just ten minutes ago he had been engrossed in his job of entering in data for the night. A five-minute break, he had told himself, to clear his head and let his eyes recover from staring at a spreadsheet for two hours.
Now he inched closer to the closed glass door to his balcony and tried to see over the edge to the ground below, but the balcony was too long. He had no way of knowing if the thing was still down there, or if he’d seen it at all.
Three months had already been spent living in that apartment, but he had moved in during the winter, and never bothered to go out onto the balcony until that moment.
Another thought attempted to break through everything else. The creature had been wearing black shorts and a black shirt. He’d been so shocked by everything else about it he hadn’t put much thought to what it wore, but now that he really considered it, unable to rid himself of that image, he could see clearly in his mind the outfit, along with who else wore an almost identical one.
Just across the little patch of grass that separated the two apartment buildings lived a man named Rick Kirkland. Joseph had only spoken to him on a few occasions, and never quite cared to speak to him anymore. At the age of twenty-three he was only one year younger than Joseph, but had managed to land a job with a salary Joseph himself could only dream about. Rick was not above making subtle references to this.
Rick also went jogging nearly every night.
On instinct Joseph pushed himself off the floor. He stepped out his front door just in time to see Rick wearing black shorts and a black shirt about to walk through his own front door. He was privy to a small wave from Rick, and then the man was gone.
Joseph stepped cautiously back into his apartment, and then up to his balcony door. There was no one below when he peered over the railing.
Across from him a light clicked on in Rick’s apartment. Joseph saw a massive shape nothing like the healthy Rick pass across the window, hidden behind drawn blinds.
Back inside the apartment Joseph locked the balcony door. He didn’t bother to pick up the fallen screen door still lying on the floor. He turned off his computer without thought and without saving anything he had done for the past half-hour.
A largely sleepless night followed by a largely unproductive day left Joseph hunched over his desk with a pencil in his hand and a notepad out in front of him. He slowly attempted to draw the image still engrained in his mind.
He had left work early using the excuse of an illness. Now he crumpled up the paper and threw it with an annoyed grunt into the trashcan.
The day was still bright right outside on the balcony that was almost calling for Joseph to come out and take a look.
Slowly he pushed himself up from his seat and made himself slide open the door. As soon as the door was open he could hear the cries and laughter of children playing, and had seen in passing the three sisters, none of them more than ten, playing in the pathway between the buildings.
But as soon as he stepped over the threshold and onto the balcony the sound of the voices changed. What had been the friendly laughter of children dipped in tone to a more guttural, yet equally energetic noise.
He didn’t want to step up to the railing and look at what lay below him, but by that point Joseph didn’t think he could stop himself.
All three of the girls ran about each other down below, their skin sunken to the point of what would’ve been starvation, but beneath the tight flesh, even from how far away Joseph was, he could still see where other shapes moved around just below the surface. Long, thick strands of brown hair completely obscured their faces. The hands they reached out to play tag with one another appeared to be little more than protrusions of jagged bone.
Joseph pulled back into the apartment before he could see anymore. He staggered to the front door and yanked it open, nearly stumbled over his own feet as he hurried out into the day and down the stairs in front of his apartment.
Three little girls stopped in their merriment to watch his white, sweaty face and deep shudders. After a few seconds they disbanded their games and started back for their apartment, the look of apprehension on their young faces evident.
They were afraid of him. He managed to stop the fit of laughter.
He didn’t go back onto the balcony that night.
Thankfully the weekend spared Joseph from work he knew he wouldn’t have been able to do anyways. Joseph practically opened the door before Owen could knock.
His colleague stepped into the apartment with a look of interest. Joseph hadn’t actually told Owen anything on the phone other than to come in, but that was out of the ordinary enough to gain Owen’s interest.
He wasn’t invited due to any particular friendship between the two men. In fact, Joseph was more inclined to dislike Owen’s attempts to analyze and explain away everyone’s behavior. After all, as Owen would readily explain, he did have a degree in psychology.
But Owen was also the only person who Joseph thought might be willing to take this situation seriously, if only out of curiosity, though Joseph was beginning to feel his lack of true friends catching up with him.
“What gives me the honor?” Owen asked.
“Come out onto the balcony with me.”
Owen followed him with an eyebrow raised and a slight smile on his face until the two men stood out on the balcony and the stretch between the two building, lit primarily by a lone lamp in the middle, glowing in the darkness of the night.
Joseph felt his breath hitch immediately when he saw the woman walking her dog just outside the radius of light from the lamp. The light from the surrounding buildings gave him a good enough view of the mutilated form, her head like a pulpy mound of flesh that had been beaten on for several hours straight.
The hairless little dog at the end of the lease seemed to be biting at itself, tearing open its own stomach. Joseph’s wide eyes flickered to Owen, who stood beside him with that same look of curiosity, glancing down at the woman and the dog, before returning his gaze to Joseph.
“What’s got you all nervous?” Owen asked.
Joseph didn’t even ask him if he saw anything because it was clear he didn’t. Only Joseph saw these creatures, and only then while standing out on the balcony.
“Everything looks normal to you?” Joseph asked.
“Why wouldn’t it?”
And so that ended Joseph’s attempts to get outside help. The next twenty minutes involved a largely pointless conversation where Joseph avoided mentioning anything about what he was seeing from the balcony, until he finally showed Owen the door, who departed with that same curious grin on his face.
It was only after Owen had turned to leave and started down the steps that Joseph noticed the shape moving underneath Owen’s collar.
From the balcony he stared over the railing at what he knew was Owen, walking down the sidewalk towards his car, stopping only briefly to look back at Joseph and smile with what looked like two mouths melting into each other, the hand he raised to wave goodbye containing three ravaged fingers.
Joseph slammed the door to the balcony hard enough to leave a long, thin crack through the glass.
He didn’t answer the phone when it rang on Monday. They tried again on Tuesday. They didn’t call again on Wednesday.
The balcony wasn’t necessary anymore. All Joseph needed to do was look out the window to see those hideous forms walking around outside, and every time he pulled back his blinds to look at them, he could see their eyes shift towards his apartment.
He hadn’t left his apartment in four days. His supply of food wouldn’t last much longer. Even outside his apartment he could almost see their other faces beneath the surface of humanity, just as he had seen a glimpse of something wrong with Owen before his former coworker walked down the steps.
What they were and why he could see them wasn’t nearly as important as figuring out what to do. The only thing he knew for certain was that this couldn’t go on for any longer.
On Friday he left his apartment for the first time. He knew Rick’s schedule. The alcove in front of Rick’s apartment was deep and the light that was meant to illuminate it was long broken.
Rick didn’t sense anything was wrong as he pulled out his keys, whistling a tune Joseph didn’t know, tremors running beneath the surface of Rick’s tanned skin. As soon as the door was unlocked and opened Joseph slammed into Rick’s back, threw him to the ground, and had the knife underneath his chin.
That took the fight right out of him. Joseph kicked the front door closed while getting the blade just close enough to draw blood.
“What are you?” Joseph growled into Rick’s ear.
Rick’s muscles loosened. The tension flowed out of him even as his skin seemed to melt into his muscles. Slowly an eye began to break through the flesh in the back of Rick’s head and stare into Joseph’s face.
“Too many for you to kill,” Rick chuckled.
Joseph dug the knife in before he jerked it to the side. Beneath him Rick’s body bucked and convulsed, but the death spasms didn’t last for very long.
From behind the blinds in his dark apartment Joseph watched the people wheeling Rick’s body out of his apartment two days after he had died. A white sheet blocked Joseph’s view of what Rick looked like. Two mutated things loaded the corpse into an ambulance, while police officers just as freakish as Joseph’s neighbors questioned the woman who lived across from Rick.
All of them were looking towards Joseph’s apartment. They were all smiling at him with wide mouths; some of them so wide they took up half the face.
He let the blinds fall back into place. No one bothered to come over and knock on his door. There was no need to. They all knew who he was and what he had done. What did it matter if he knew? There was no one else he had seen that was human.
Perhaps Joseph was the only one left?
Cynthia collapsed against her door after a single blow. Joseph stared at his next-door neighbor for only a few seconds before he pulled her into his open apartment door. She appeared almost normal, but he had seen her walking down below before, and seen the hideous face she hid away.
He tied her to a chair as fast as he could, his arms weak from lack of food, the effort of tying her nearly too much for him, but by the time she began to stir the ropes were in place.
She didn’t jerk awake in surprise. She didn’t look around in bewilderment or fear at her situation. Instead her head slowly rose, her eyes widening so far her forehead began to split open to allow her eyes to grow larger. Her nose seemed to shrivel up and pull back inside her head, mouth a gaping mess of dull teeth.
“This won’t be enough,” she sneered, before arching her head back and screaming with a voice louder than anything Joseph had heard before.
He swung out his arm to strike her, forgetting until the knife tore through her cheek that he had even been holding it.
The flesh began to knit itself back together while blood oozed slowly down the side of her face. A raspy laugh shook within her abdomen.
Outside of his apartment he could see the flashing lights of the police driving up.
“Most of them are already ours,” she laughed at him when his eyes darted towards the lights. “You have no idea what they plan on doing to you when they find you with me.”
He caught her across the face hard enough to swell up the flesh around her right eye. The blow didn’t do anything but make her start laughing again, and now the police were running up the stairs out front.
Joseph lifted up the blinds just enough to see the cars near the side of the building, and in the soft afternoon sun he could make out almost all of his neighbors, all of them so hideous he couldn’t stare at them for long.
A crack of wood shuddered through his front door. He stared at Cynthia’s smiling face and then to the knife still clutched in his hand.
As soon as the door broke open Officer Cooke was moving into the apartment with Officer Tolbert and Riley right behind him. The girl tied to the chair screamed to them to untie her. Cooke focused on the man still convulsing on the ground.
The long handle of a knife jutted out from his right eye.
Cooke glanced over his shoulder to see Riley escorting the girl out of the apartment while Tolbert knelt down beside him.
By then the man’s body had stopped. Cooke could see his good left eye rolled towards him, staring up at him. He felt a certain tension he didn’t like staring into that wide-open eye.
“Guess we know who killed the guy across the way,” Tolbert said.
“I guess we do.”
“I’ll go down and get someone to come up here and take care of him,” Tolbert said.
The air conditioner was off in the apartment, and the fierce summer heat that had started to wear Cooke down had seeped in. He slid open the balcony door, noting as he did the deep cracks running through the glass, and stepped out into the relative cool of the late afternoon, at least in comparison to the apartment.
As soon as he looked down his breath caught. On the far side of the path between the buildings he could see the creatures huddled together to watch the show.
His gaze ran slowly over the twisted shapes whispering to each other, and he suddenly realized that all of them were staring up directly at him.
He almost screamed to his fellow officers, except when he lowered his eyes to look at them, at least two of them were no different than the neighbors. Dressed in their police uniforms, these creatures walked among the others unnoticed, one of them heading up the stairs towards the apartment.
The girl who had been held hostage was down below talking to Riley, but she didn’t look like a girl anymore. Her eyes rose to meet his, the side of her face a swollen mound of purplish skin, the entire lower half of her face nothing but a mess of teeth and darkness. She stared at him with a large smile spread across his face and a knowing kind of look in her eyes.
“You in here Henry?” a voice called out from within the apartment, and was enough to make Cooke tear his eyes away from the knowing smile of the girl down below.
Fred Davies was the deformed officer he had seen walking up to the apartment. Cooke had known Fred for ten years.
“Could you come out here?” Cooke called out, his hand slowly wrapping around the handle of his gun.
He blocked Fred’s view of the gun when his friend walked out onto the balcony.
“What’s going on?” Fred asked him, certainly able to see the tension in Cooke’s body.
“Look over there,” Cooke said, pointing towards the huddled group of creatures, never taking his eyes off of his supposed friend.
“What about them?” Fred asked. He glanced back over at Cooke, a slight smile on his lips as his eyes shined with restrained amusement.
Cooke pulled out his gun and fired.