The front door stood slightly ajar, so I gingerly pushed it open with one finger. An ominous pool of dark liquid was illuminated by the full moon. I debated calling out, “Hello?” and following the suspicious trail of footprints that led deeper into my home, but decided to get back in my car, lock the doors, drive to a nearby gas station and call the police.
The fancy hotel room was supposed to be a treat, an exciting break from our usual routine. It was luxurious; cherry-wood paneled walls, leather couches, a decadent bar and a hot tub. This vacation from real life was going to make our happy marriage even happier.
But his smile was crystalline, his eyes shiny-flat and hard as marbles. He was cold and distant, so unlike himself. This was no second honeymoon.
We had never fought so much. The air was heavy with bitterness, dissatisfaction.
Something was wrong. The lavish surroundings seemed to mask something dark and ugly.
Sickeningly sweet, saccharine poison soaking into everything we held most dear.
It all seemed unreal, distant; a nightmare set to the backdrop of heaven.
The room felt… red. Candy-apple red, crimson lips curved in a wicked smile, a trickle of fresh blood. Syrupy thick, painful, all-encompassing scarlet.
The pulse of light behind closed eyelids.
He had enough, and stormed out.
I expected the red to fade, and it did; the room shadowed, the lights seemed to flicker. Then I could still see it out of the corner of my eye.
Red. The outline of a man in a red, red suit.
Pulsing with malice.
It was whispering, barely audible; promises, threats, pleas, commands. Enticing lies to coerce, entrap, and smother me.
I would not look. I could not look. If I looked at it, this… thing in the shape of a man, if I acknowledged its existence, I wouldn’t be able to resist the honeyed words. How long had it been hissing these lies?
I couldn’t move. Its presence seemed to suck the air out of the room, the air out of my lungs.
I willed myself not to look.
Do not look.
It was Halloween, and my friends and I were staying at the lake house. It was a towering, ancient monstrosity with dark hallways and unreliable lighting that flickered ominously.
“Let’s have a séance!” one of the girls squealed, waving the Ouija board above her head.
Everyone giggled and agreed enthusiastically as they set the board on the table. The lights were turned out, candles were lit, and the group gathered around the table.
“Are you going to play?” They looked expectantly at me as I lingered near the door. I shook my head, and took another step back.
They placed their hands on the planchette, and the air in the room suddenly felt colder.
“This is a terrible idea.” I muttered, as I gathered my things. “No way. I am out.”
It was an ordinary day. A typical Tuesday morning. I woke to the alarm, showered, dressed. Off to work. I arrived at my desk right on schedule. I hung my hat and coat, and headed to the break room for my coffee.
Generally, I keep to myself at work. I prefer not to draw attention, so I usually hurry down the hall early, before the rush, eyes on my feet to avoid any conversation. The long hallway is always buzzing with activity, but this morning it was surprisingly quiet, which caused me to look up. And I saw the door.
It was at the end of the hall, tall and skinny, painted pale yellow. I had never seen this door before. I was certain that it had not been there yesterday; I have worked in this office for seven years, and I had never seen this door.
I looked around; still no one. I continued down the hallway, staring intently at the door. It was a strange yellow, almost a sickly yellow. Why did the door seem too thin, too tall? Why hadn’t I noticed it before?
I passed the break room. Usually a small crowd gathered by the water cooler or the coffee maker, but I saw no one. It was quiet. Too quiet.
Starting to sweat, I loosened my tie, cleared my throat, never taking my eyes off the door. I was still walking slowly, but steadily towards it. For some reason, it didn’t appear to be getting any closer. The end of the hall was still a ways off. I tried to walk faster, lengthen my stride, but my shuffling feet wouldn’t cooperate.
Maybe this was a bad idea. The door was unnerving, seeming to pulsate and throb with a strange energy. I should turn back.
My reluctant feet kept moving. I tried to turn around, to look away, but it was too late. I was reaching for the knob. It was cold to the touch. I felt dizzy as I turned the handle.
The door swung open on silent hinges.
I saw only darkness.
Heart pounding, I tried to look away, to shut the door, turn around, anything, but I was trapped, gazing helplessly into the void.
I don’t know how long I stood there, resisting the urge to step over the threshold, fighting with every ounce of my being to avoid taking that step. Sweat was trickling down my face, my breath was coming in fast, harsh gasps.
A sudden flash of light blinded me, and I shielded my eyes, unsure of what to expect. As my vision cleared, I saw what lay beyond the door.
A mop. A bucket. A rickety shelf stacked with toilet paper, cleaning supplies.
I had discovered the janitor’s closet.
“Sir? Are you okay?” A man pushing a trashcan on wheels stood a few feet away, hand still on the light switch. “Did you need help finding something?”
I took a shaky breath. “Just a cup of coffee.” I shut the door. The knob seemed to tremble… or was it just my hands shaking?
The circus was coming to town. Fliers had been tucked into mailboxes and slid under doors some time in the night, though no one had heard or seen anyone do it.
The carnival last fall had been the highlight of the small town. The flashing lights, tall striped tents and glittering sequins were mesmerizing. Men on stilts, candied apples, exotic animals, the smell of hot, buttered popcorn, magicians, clowns, music! The delighted shouts and laughter of young and old filled the air.
Everyone loved the circus. Anticipation rolled through the town like the clouds of dust that blew in from the dry fields.
The children raced outside at recess, their round faces pressed closely to the chain link fence surrounding the schoolyard. They jostled for the best view of the road, looking for the haze of dust that hailed the arrival of anyone coming to town. They would be here soon.
Within a few minutes, a strange melody could be heard, clinking and metallic. The timing was off, as if the song were playing at half-speed.
“Their stereo is broken!“ someone in the back of the gang shrilled loudly. Laughter broke out in the bunch, followed by more pushing and shoving for space at the fence.
The first truck came into view, the windshield nearly obscured with dirt and grime. The children waved and hollered as it passed, expecting the honk of a horn and a smile at least (last year the driver in the lead truck had tossed hard candies wrapped in colorful cellophane!) but this driver looked straight ahead, mouth set firm in a grim line.
“What’s his deal?” squawked a voice from the back of the group. A chorus of nervous giggles from the children.
The next truck rolled by, creaking in time to the plodding beat of the too-slow music. A faded wooden sign hung from the side, “CIRCUS” painted in peeling block letters. It was crooked.
There were two people; a man with his cap pulled low, and a pale woman. His eyes never left the road, but the dark haired woman stared intently at the children. She smiled without warmth, and blew a kiss. Her teeth were sharply white against her red lips.
“Who does she think she is?” screeched the voice from the rear of the crowd. A few children snickered uneasily, and the crowd shifted a few steps back.
Trucks and trailers rumbled by, dusty grey. More sullen stares and unsettling smiles. The circus last year had trailers with open windows, so they could see the elephants and horses, but every shutter was closed. Some were nailed shut.
The sluggish music clanked and sputtered on.
A girl backed away from the fence, tears in her eyes. “I don’t think this is a normal circus. I don’t like this circus.”
The last pickup rolled slowly by, with a lone passenger in the back. A sad clown.
His thick makeup was crusty and dry, and his wrinkles showed through. The clown pointed past the children, his tired eyes dark and lonely.
The children turned, and the familiar scratchy voice in the back shrieked, “Finally, you see me!”
It was another clown, but his eyes weren’t sad. His eyes looked mean.
I am roughly shaken awake. A Brother, face pale in my dark room. “It is time, we have to do it now! They are already at the door.”
I sprint down the stone steps, my coarse, heavy robes impeding my flight. I dash from the living quarters into the bustling courtyard. The sun is starting to come up, but it is still dim. Torches are lit, men in dark robes whisper urgently. The space is humming with activity, yet the only sounds are the whisper of flames and soft patter of feet.
We mustn’t wake them.
The monks are assembled, we quickly move to the livestock barn across the yard. This hour, between night and day, they are most vulnerable.
We must destroy them all.
The quietest, bravest monks have already freed what few animals are still alive, but a goat cries shrilly, and it has begun.
The air is suddenly alive with shouts and grunts, flames engulf one corner of the barn, then another. The hay doused in oil is quick to light, and the air burns, thick with acrid smoke.
Startled hisses and shrieks from the barn, high in the barn, the rafters. They wake.
The barn is not burning as fast as we had hoped, and they will take advantage.
We circle the barn, chewing garlic, holding our rosaries aloft. Prayers join the screams of rage and pain.
We mustn’t let them escape.
Soon they bolt from the building strong and swift, blurs of tattered rags, claws, fangs and terror.
We must hold the circle.
The smoke is so thick it is hard to see, I hear the cries of monks, in pain, in prayer. I hear my Brothers fighting, dying.
The circle is broken, the fire was not fast enough, and now chaos reigns. I see a Brother bleeding on the ground, eyes vacant. I see the charred remains of a beast, smoldering still.
Running, screaming, cries for help. Smoke is all I see.
Then I wake up.
Sometimes, when it was really quiet, she could hear a soft buzzing in her head.
It wasn’t always in the same spot; usually at the base of her skull, sometimes closer to the front, near her nose.
“Sinus pressure.” She dismissed her worries. “It is allergy season, after all.”
But the humming was getting louder. She could feel a vibration in her skull. She was beginning to get worried, jumpy. When her hair touched her face or her neck, it felt like the many legs of an insect, insidiously creeping over her skin.
The twitchy feelings were maddening, and the thrumming was getting stronger, more insistent.
She decided to get a haircut. A short one. She walked into the first place she saw, an old-fashioned barber shop with a striped pole in front.
“We don’t do women’s cuts.” The barber informed her.
“Buzz it.” She demanded.
The sound of the shaver was a roaring hum, the vibration over her scalp felt glorious. It drowned out the sizzling drone inside her head.
As he unclipped her smock, the humming returned.
The barber handed her a mirror, and asked, “That is quite the scar you’ve got there. Where’d you come by that?”
“On my head? I don’t have any scars on my head.”
“Sure enough you do, right above your neck.” He spun her chair so she could see for herself. He pointed, “Just there.”
An angry, purple-red mark was etched into her skin. “I don’t know where it came from…” She murmured. She reached to touch it, and it pulsed against her fingers. She felt it hum and throb.
The buzzing in her head resumed at full force, even louder than before. And now it hurt.
“Are you alright?” Asked the barber, folding the smock. “I would get that checked out.”
“I-I’m fine. Just a headache. I must have whacked my head on something… thanks.”
The pain was getting worse, she could feel it creeping behind her eyes. She hurried home, trying to ignore the thrum of activity in her head. It was in her neck, too. She could feel the vibrations shudder through her shoulders.
Her fingertips felt numb, as if she had been shocked. She collapsed on the couch, breathing heavily. Her skin was crawling, the buzzing had become a roar.
I should go to the hospital. She thought before losing consciousness.
When she woke up, it was dark. It was silent. She sat up slowly, and gingerly touched the back of her neck; the wound was still there. It hadn’t been a dream.
She stood up and stepped on something with a sickening crunch. She choked back a scream and stood still. The buzzing started again, but this time it was not in her head. It was in the room. A hissing, throbbing hum that made her hair stand on end. There was no mistaking it.
The buzzing in her head was the same noise that filled the room.
She carefully reached out and turned on the light.
Every Tuesday at sunset, the clockwork monkeys gathered on the street outside my window. Clicking and chattering. Gears grinding and wheels whirling. Red glass eyes winking, copper tails twitching and sparking on the cobblestones.
I was getting damn tired of these monkeys.
The first time they appeared, the monkeys stayed on the street. Passersby stopped to laugh and point at the creatures, waiting for some sort of show to begin. But there was no magician or tinker to entertain. Just the flash of scarlet eyes as the last rays of daylight splashed across the alley. As the sun went down, the clatter of tiny metal paws and empty stares were more ominous than humorous, and the bystanders quickly departed.
The clockwork monkeys turned to face my window, one by one. They waited.
As the first stars started to twinkle in the sky, the monkeys began to disperse. Gone as quickly as they had appeared, they skittered into the night with soft clicks and clacks.
I shook it off as some sort of practical joke gone awry.
The following Tuesday, as the sun went down, they were back. This time no passersby paused to point. Eyes averted, vendors went about closing up shop, their patrons hastily withdrawing as soon as the first monkey made an appearance. Even the always crowded café across the way was empty. A few monkeys rattled amongst the tables, others crowded in front.
There were more this time. I lost count at twenty, as they continued to click-clack and tick-tock into the usually bustling alley. The only noise was the chatter and clatter of the clockworks twisting movements. The monkeys turned to stare, one by one, tails a-twitch-twitch. Then stillness.
Week after week, the mechanical monkeys stared into my window, each week edging a little closer.
As the weeks went by, I noticed something even more worrisome than the ever-encroaching metal creatures.
I saw my neighbors were no longer watching the monkeys. They were watching me.
My street had never been so quiet.
So I did the only thing I could.
I shut the blinds.