Being a cop was never easy at the best of times; the constant grief of dealing with the worst grime of humanity balled up in clothing—some filthy and obvious, others innocuous, able to drift by without receiving so much as a passing glance from even the most well-trained detectives—was almost always enough to make a man insane with outrage and exhaustion. But at least the job was being done. The good guys were fighting back. Being a cop, however difficult, whatever the sacrifices, was made worthwhile when the clicking of closing handcuffs rung out in response to a suspect's protests.
Barry Lange reveled in his work as an officer, as much as someone could do so in a job that exposed him to the worst kind of atrocities. After twenty years of his forty-five year existence in service he was now able to see past the rank criminality that offended and distressed most other people. Of course he got upset and angry at the things people did to each other, but he didn't let it get to him and affect his work anymore. He'd regularly see other officers, young although not completely inexperienced, take days and weeks off due to distress and emotional trauma and sometimes it was something as little as a stabbing that would make someone break—not that a stabbing was something to be taken lightly, but amongst all the horrors the inner city had to offer a knife attack was seen as a welcome break by most police and paramedics. He loved his job because he made a difference every day of his life. He'd put away dealers, rapists, child-killers, and smiled as he did it. Seeing those bastards in the stands trying desperately to make a jury find them innocent of a crime of which each and every person in the court are convinced they are guilty gave him memories to treasure for the rest of his life.
Consider this, and then think of what life would be like for a cop who can no longer do the job he loves. When Barry was forced to retire on medical grounds he was distraught in a way he hadn't been for some time. Not even the tumor made him feel as bad as losing his job did. Sure, he had a great pension and all that but what would he do now? Tend his garden? Write a book? It all seemed so ordinary, so boring, so…shit. Eventually, however, he had to come to terms with it and having decided that the one thing he'd rather spend his retirement doing is renovating a house he'd been eyeing for a few months, he bought it.
It was old, about a hundred years, and quite dilapidated by all accounts. Structurally it was mostly okay but there was so much other work to be done on it that nobody seemed to want this huge, three-bedroom house. Barry did. DIY was something he merely dabbled in but this house was a challenge he'd relish in his retirement. Hopefully he'd live long enough to at least see some vast improvement on what would soon be his home.
While he renovated he stayed in his flat, a dingy one-bedroom affair that he'd endured for eight long years after divorcing his teen sweetheart. Not so sweet anymore he used to think, angrily. He was over it now but it had taken a long time for his savage bitterness to become something long forgotten—their daughter was the spit of her mother; it brought up bad feelings whenever she looked at him in a certain way, or said something in the manner of her mother.
The house seemed big on the outside, but the inside was massive. The living room, kitchen and master bedroom were separately two-thirds the size of his entire flat and the bathroom and second bedroom—which he began to renovate first—half that. There was no damp or vermin to worry about, only replacing wiring, water and gas pipes and insulation, which he got professionals to do. It was when he began his work on the bathroom tiles that the weight of his future lumped him in the stomach.
He would stay here, in this house, for the rest of his life—what little of it that remained.
The trowel he had held in his hand clattered to the floor. He sat, leaning against the bare-brick wall, and stared into nothingness as the realization that he might not live much longer bore deep into his brain. He was going to die. And it wouldn't even be as a cop, but as a forty-something retiree shut into a half-finished house, alone and sick with nobody to comfort him. Being gunned down in an alley by some trigger-happy teenager with his jeans halfway down his ass was a much more appealing prospect.
Shakily, he got to his feet and opened a window. The cool afternoon air drifted in and caressed his tired and thinning hair. On the windowsill sat his car keys, attached to them was a key ring with his daughter stamped onto it. What a way to go, and with her still so young. Cotton began to form in his mouth and he remembered he hadn't stopped working all day. Time for a break, he thought, and shuffled down the carpet-less stairs to help himself to a beer from the cooler.
The cold foam tingled against his lips as he washed away the cotton, making his way back up to the bathroom. The best bit of a beer, he always believed, was the mouthful that came just after the last of the froth had gone, but only if it was ice cold. It was, and the feel of cold wet glass against his forehead made not having a break all day every bit worth the wait.
Smacking his lips he neared the top of the stairs as a putrid cloud of air replaced the beer in his mouth. He gagged and grabbed the balustrade and waited for his gut to become used to the smell of what he could only describe as fleshy and hot; the image of a dead horse left out under a desert sun bled into his mind, its stomach burst, entrails seeping into the broiling sand. He gagged again and fled back down the stairs.
Fifteen minutes and another beer later he left the two bottles that remained and went back upstairs, using a towel as an impromptu mask that only helped a little to buffer the taint. A hastened search of each room disclosed nothing in relation to the stench—it seemed to be stronger in the hallway and, maddened, Barry fetched a crowbar and began to tear up the bare floorboards. He had to know what it was, where it was, and how he could get rid of it. What he found most puzzling however was the fact that he'd spent all day upstairs and hadn't noticed it.
The floorboards, too, yielded nothing aside from brand new piping and dust.
Frustrated and defeated he resigned himself to replacing the boards without nailing them down and taking one last solemn search from room to room. Stepping from the last he once again noticed something he hadn't before—a single cord hanging from the ceiling at the far end of the corridor just in front of the stairs. Slowly and with no small amount of trepidation he approached the cord and gripped the small red plastic sphere at its end, pulling it down.
A blast of hot, sticky, rancid air noiselessly roared down from the hatch above; as it widened a ladder slid down to the floor. Barry gagged again, harder this time as the stench was a thousand-fold worse than before, the hotness of the smell translating to the air, making the attic seem like a blast furnace. Barry's skin grew sticky as he ascended, the towel now completely ineffective against the moldy air, his eyes streaming, stinging painfully.
Never before had he felt the urge to retch and vomit more strongly than at the moment he fully emerged into the attic. It was dark, the rankness wholly overpowering, and it was by luck that he managed to find a light switch; a luck he'd curse when he saw the massive, gross sac, slick with grease, pulsating in the corner of the dust-laden room. He vomited suddenly without even the chance to double over, and thus threw up on himself, harshly—so much so that he began to taste blood.
This is what the stench was feverishly emanating from. Its mottled, milky-pale body expanded and contracted, as though it were breathing, a strained sucking wheeze lifting from it with every bloated expansion. Barry stepped back, the sick horror now beginning to slowly register, and sank into something soft and wet; looking down he could just make out most of his shoe sinking into a wad of pale, viscous scum. A cry escaped his throat and he tore away from the slime; almost in response to him the sac burbled wetly and shifted, scraping its bulky mass across the wooden floor as if it was trying to turn to look at him. The noise of it moving was as vulgar as its breathing, the slapping of its body against the wet floor as it floundered, trying to turn itself around completely, made it all the more likely that he would vomit again. What was assumedly its head, eyeless and without an obvious mouth, became visible—horrible dark tendrils rhythmically tapping the wooden floor in a dreadful Morse code.
Barry cried out and his whole body jerked him awake. He was back in the bathroom, sitting against the wall, the trowel at his side.
He scrambled to his feet and looked out into the hallway—there was no ladder; the floorboards were no longer loose; there was no smell, and when he looked back into the bathroom the window was still closed. What began as a run quickly became a hazy, drunken stumble and more than once almost had him trip down the stairway and once again as he made his way through the living room to the cooler, which still held four bottles.
Was it a dream? It seemed so real, more real than this room or this cooler did now. He could even still taste the horrid stench in the back of his throat, and he took a bottle to alleviate himself of the tang though he wasn't sure if either were existent. Was he still upstairs with that…that thing? Perhaps he'd passed out and now this was a dream, a reaction to the trauma of finding that a creature so repulsive and horrifying even existed, let alone lived in his own house. If he was still up there, unconscious, then that sac could be dragging itself over to him, tendrils tapping their way up his legs, the thing's bulky mass pressing down on him…
He ran back upstairs, desperate to go back into the attic; he imagined that if he did go back up he might awake in time to save himself from a horrid end. The image of that greasy worm smothering his body turned him sick, but more than that it made him angry—angry enough to fight through the sickness, angry enough to tear up that ladder and beat it to death with whatever he could find; his fists if need be. But there would be no ladder; the string that dangled from the hatch before was no longer there.
Maybe it had been just a dream, then. It had to have been—there was no other alternative, other than he was going crazy. Barry made his way back downstairs, not wanting to be reminded of the creature in the attic.
Throbbing pain began to assert itself just underneath his skull—he was warned that there would most likely be some pain, and was given a cocktail of medication to relieve it. As he waited for it to kick in he unfolded an armchair, a glass of water in his hand, and quickly sank into a half-doze, the smell of the worm still fresh in his nostrils; the sound of its lungs sucking, its wallowing body slapping against the floor and its tendrils, those ragged, horrid things, tapping the slime-covered floor all still fresh in his ears. He thought he would dream, or return to reality, but neither happened. Instead he awoke a while later with no memory of dream or nightmare. He sighed and opened his eyes, wiping away the sleep, and opened his eyes to blurry darkness. It was only when his vision had cleared that he noticed the darkness was moving, that it had an outline, and as the sac's wet body descended upon him he opened his mouth to scream. But the noise was enveloped and lost to the darkness.
Jolting to life Barry screamed and leapt out of his chair, sweating and cursing under his breath. That was definitely a dream. Not much time had passed—it was still light outside, but getting darker. Things needed to be cleaned up, and reluctantly he obliged himself to go do it, dragging himself up the stairs, stopping two steps down from the top. Ablaze in his sinuses once again was that smell. He looked up and stared at the red ball dangling from the ceiling. Compulsively he reached up and yanked it down, letting the ladder drop down more noisily than before. Once again the corridor was swamped in the thick, burning stench, drowning him in a nauseating ocean of air. The same compulsion that drove him to pull the ladder down induced him into ascending it, back up into the murky garret where that thing resided.
Lifting the collar of his t-shirt up over his nose he emerged into the attic. The smell was as powerful as ever, and the sac even more repulsive—its colour even blotchier and dirtier than before, even moldy now. Its tendrils seemed this time to drool a substance much like the scum he stepped in before. It squirmed, lurched and dragged itself from the corner it was in to the one opposite, gurgling and wheezing, drumming and slapping its tendrils as it moved. It seemed bigger somehow.
Though he was still as disgusted as before a strange, morbid curiosity came over him; he moved closer, trying not to make any sudden movements. It was impossible to tell what it would do if provoked—whatever it could do, if anything, wasn't likely to be either pleasant or quick. He stopped within four feet of it as it halted, having reached the corner, with its back to him.
The drumming quickened, became arrhythmic, and grew louder—almost frantically so. Its breathing became harsher, labored; its body quivered under the massive strain of each breath, drooling and spluttering the same slime in which he stood.
Barry had seen enough; his skin was sticky, the air was growing more and more humid, and the parts of his face covered by his shirt had become hotter than the room itself—so he began to back away, slowly at first, afraid to turn his back on it lest it suddenly attack.
Then the creature's side opened.
It hardly seemed to acknowledge that anything was happening as the split yawned open, allowing Barry a brief glimpse into its pulsing, dark green innards, through which a jagged, bone-like limb—resembling something like a thin scythe—emerged and dug itself into the wooden floor. Another, and another, and another followed it; the four limbs scraped and scuttled, dragging out a spiked, insect-like body about the size of a dinner tray. The ersatz arachnid stood three feet high on its ten legs, its neck as long as its body and thick like an anaconda; its freakish humanoid head small, bald and shedding the bloody skin that covered its mouth and eyes.
The worm's gaping side slapped shut. The spider twisted its neck to look at Barry and made a quick, violent movement towards him.
Barry spun on his heel and ran back to where the door used to be. He slipped on the wetness and hit the floor, sliding face-first. Desperately he scraped at the thick carpet of slime, but there was no door—maybe there was never one—only floorboards. He looked up and saw the spider tower over him, a strange clacking emanating from its elongated throat, as it rose up one of its pointed scythes and plunged it down into his throat.
Again Barry awoke coughing and gasping for breath, pushing himself away from the chair and stumbling to the nearest window. Glass warmed from the mid-afternoon sun soothed him as he leant his aching forehead against it. Never before had he nightmares like these, never before moving into this house. Was it the tumour? It might be, he wasn't sure. Certainly he was never warned about anything like this. He had to leave. It was possible the stress of renovating coupled with the weight of his illness brought on these horrible fits, so a break from the house ought to do him good.
He remembered his keys, upstairs in the bathroom where he'd spent most of the day. Or was that a dream too? There was no way of knowing until after a thorough search of the downstairs of the house, which yielded one answer: he must have left them upstairs. At least one memory from that day wasn't an illusion. Taking two steps at a time he ran up without looking at the ceiling, holding his breath; in as few strides as possible he entered and exited the bathroom, keys in hand. He was halfway down the stairs when the house shook violently.
It lasted a second. He let go of the balustrade and took a deep breath, the rank stench poisoning his lungs again. The house shook again, this time followed by a scream.
Barry looked upstairs, from where it came, and saw the red ball swaying back and forth. He ran up, yanked the ball down and stared as the ladder slid to the floorboards and a bloodstained arm flopped down over the frame. Without thinking he launched himself up and grabbed the arm, dragging the body over the edge and down on top of him. He fell, hit the ground hard and stared into his own slick dead eyes as blood leaked from the body's throat.
The body wore his clothes, was his exact double, and seemed to have died in the same way he just dreamed.
Was he still dreaming?
Looking past the body, back up to the attic, the spider-creature's deformed head twisted down through the opening. It clacked and screeched and leapt down at him.
Barry, scrambling frantically, managed to pull himself out from underneath his own greasy, slime-coated corpse and ran back to the stairs. The creature landed heavily, splintering the wood underneath it.
Now descending four steps at a time he managed two strides before his feet left the floor and something hard struck his back.
His face smashed against the last step, the creature shrieking and savaging his body. They bounced and rolled across the living room floor, the monster careering into a pile of boxes. Barry could hardly move—his head hazy and sick, his body broken and slashed to pieces, able only to drag himself to the door. He had barely moved a few feet when something sliced through his calf and pulled him back.
Once again the thing towered over him, its skin peeling and oozing slime and blood. The membrane over its mouth split and uncovered a sticky black hole full of long needle-like teeth that started to grow and would have become too big for its mouth if its jaw had not snapped and elongated. It yawned and gnashed its teeth, like knives scraping against each other, spitting thick phlegm over its intended victim. Barry stared into the jaws of jagged transience, the blackness to which he was consigned darker than any fate he could have imagined for himself. In the corner of his eye he once again saw himself, sat in the chair, unmoving.
Somewhere, amongst the heavy silence of the house, a half-empty glass shattered.