By the time 1 A.M. rolled around Julian was certain Tony wasn’t coming back for more drinks, but that wasn’t such a big deal. Andy’s was his dive, his home away from home. He knew the bartenders by name and they never vetoed his jukebox selections, even on a Hall and Oates night. Everywhere he looked there was a friendly face, a sloppy hug, a cry of “Hey Jules!” from across the smoky murk. It was a good night. He was three tequilas and five beers deep and though the thought of Tony’s continued absence was a minor blip of concern on his radar, he was not of a mind to give it any credence.
At any rate, Tony’s departure over an hour ago was a mission of the utmost importance. After laying a substantial amount of groundwork with certain young woman they met earlier in the night during a brief stop at Eastside Bar Tony found his opportunity. Claiming an early work day she asked for a ride home, which he was happy to provide, knowing the chance to prolong the night in more intimate surroundings was high. The fact of his continued truant status could only mean glad tidings. If he couldn’t bum a ride from one of the other patrons he could always walk. It wouldn’t be the first time, just the first time in a couple of months. The first time since an unfortunate incident had occurred. This was a concern for later, as far as Julian was concerned, and the less thought of that unfortunate incident the better.
Another shot of tequila, bottle of Dos Equis, and two cigarettes later, Julian found himself sitting at the bar discussing Schwartzenegger movies with some bearded bro with a topknot and a tie-dye tank top. They had met before, but the location of this earlier meeting had slipped his mind along with the dude’s name. It didn’t matter, since the guy seemed to think Arnold’s finest cinematic moment was True Lies, which was just baffling. He was preparing to explain all of the myriad reasons in which this guy was one hundred percent wrong when the bartender announced last call. Mr. Topknot downed his drink, flicked away the cigarette he had just cadged from Julian, and sauntered off without a word. Just as well, since Julian wasn’t about to beg a ride from some hipster who had apparently never seen . Or , for that matter.
A glance around revealed dire news. The few remaining patrons appeared drunker than he was, and all of them strangers. Not one solid candidate for a ride and that meant he was walking. Not a big deal, he told himself again. It wasn’t far, a mile and a half, two miles tops. And it was a nice night, early summer and not too hot. His brother wasn’t home, which meant he was free to smoke a bowl, play the guitar a bit, and pass out. Maybe the night wouldn’t end with him blowing a load over some girl’s stomach and chest area as Tony’s surely had, but it was a good night and he was feeling fine.
After paying his tab, Julian stumbled up the stairs to the ground floor, stopped to flirt a bit with Amy at the door, and stepped out into the night. He lit another Turkish Gold and looked out upon the square. All around him were other barflies exiting the other half dozen bars in the vicinity, walking, hailing cabs, or crawling into cars they probably should not have been driving. Just as well Tony never showed up, Julian decided. Every time he took a ride from someone as blitzed as Tony tended to be by this time, he spent the entire ride wondering if this was the time they were going to get busted or worse, hit someone, something. He knew he shouldn’t do it, but it was one more bad decision at the end of a night full of them, and the thing about bad decisions were that they got easier to make every time. So tonight that bad decision was taken out of consideration, and it was probably for the best.
The first leg of his journey, heading south down Locust Street, proved uneventful. If anything was on his mind, it was the thought of a taquito or two from the gas station along the way, maybe with a cup of nacho cheese for dipping. This part of town seemed to mostly consist of auto part stores and garages, no houses or apartments to speak of, and from experience he knew that cops seldom patrolled this stretch after the bars closed. Few cars of any sort passed him, and foot traffic was nearly non-existent. No one to bother him or try to give him a ticket for the apparent crime of walking home drunk. Good times.
He was humming a tune to keep himself company and still feeling good from all the drinks as he turned onto Eagle Drive, putting him at a few mere blocks from the gas station with its roller grill bounty. A debate had started within him, concerning the taquitos and whether they should be enjoyed as he walked or if they should be saved for after the smoking of a bowl. Both sides had equal merit as far as he was concerned which put the former option at an advantage for coming first. Also, it had recently occurred to him that he was ravenously hungry.
When it happened it was just like flipping a switch in his brain. Less than two blocks down Eagle, Julian felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, and a rash of goosebumps ran down his arms. His mouth went dry and his heart started racing. As clear as someone speaking the word aloud in his ear, his mind screamed a single word:
In the moment before he obeyed this imperative, Julian glanced around at his surroundings for the source of this adrenal spike. The moon was full (or close to it at least), and the street lamps were lit. If there was an immediate threat or danger nearby, it was well hidden. It didn’t matter. He could feel it. Eyes, watching him, waiting for just the right moment. To strike, to kill maybe. Julian didn’t question his instincts. Julian ran.
The feeling did not dissipate as he sprinted down the sidewalk, throwing glances over his shoulder in search of a pursuer. There was none. No one was chasing him. He had heard nothing at all, not even so much as a twig snapping. Apart from the sound of his own heavy breathing the city was silent as the grave. Still, this feeling of panic, of mortal terror. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he could not convince his heart to stop pounding, nor his feet to stop moving away from some apparently mythological threat.
Before long the fluorescent glow of the convenience store appeared in the near distance. Still unsure from what precisely he was fleeing, Julian managed to convince himself that all would be well as long as he could reach that island of light, still bustling with activity. The very sight of it calmed him by a measure and he was able to convince his legs to slow from a full-on sprint to a fast jog. The stitch in his side loosened and he was able to breathe, but he still felt a disquieting skin-crawling sensation that told him he wasn’t out of the woods just yet. Another over-the-shoulder glance revealed nothing apart from the unshakable sense that the danger was merely hidden. Ducked behind a tree, perhaps, and just at the right moment.
As Julian crossed the threshold of the gas station’s immense parking lot, the light of its powerful arc-sodium lamps washing over him, he could feel his panic trickling away as acutely as the sweat down his back. Glancing around he saw that none of the people gassing up their cars or carrying armloads of salted snacks and soft drinks took any special notice of his frantic approach. This was good, as the absence of a hatchet-wielding maniac would have left him looking foolish and he knew it. For the remainder of his approach, he forced himself to adopt a casual pace and a calm expression he still did not precisely feel, and stepped through the double doors for taquitos he no longer precisely wanted. A glance back to the parking lot showed nothing untoward, hatchet-wielding maniac or otherwise.
Julian perused the shelves lackadaisically, forestalling his inevitable return to the darkness of the city streets, for the last leg of his journey. His frazzled brain cleared enough to allow the return of cognitive reasoning and he realized the probable source of this panic.
It was the aforementioned “unfortunate event” that crossed his mind at the bar. Though he did not allow himself to think about it at the time, some lingering memory of it must have remained. A sort of trap set by his subconscious, perhaps.
It was, of course, a night not at all unlike this one. Julian had found himself drunk as a skunk, stranded at the bar without a ride and forced to walk home. The same old story of a hundred other nights. This one, however, went drastically south. No more than a block away from the bar, he ambled, puffing on a cigarette and paying no particular attention to the world around him, when a voice emerged from somewhere on his left.
It said, “Hey man, got a cig?”
Julian, never being one to deny another smoker in need, was already fishing into his pocket for his pack of cigarettes as he turned to face the anonymous party. That was when the first blow landed, somewhere between his left eye and the bridge of his nose.
“Fucking Mexican!” Someone else cried, cackling. Julian never saw who they were, thanks to the tears welling up in his already swollen eye. He didn’t see the point in telling them his family was from El Salvador, wasn’t even sure they’d care.
Vainly attempting to defend himself, Julian threw some wild haymakers at the shapes in the darkness, connecting rarely but once or twice in key locations judging by the smack of meat and the sputtered curses that ensued. For the most part, however, his attackers were winning handily. They seemed to be concentrating on his head and stomach area, and he could feel his legs wanting to quit supporting his battered body. Another blow to the side of the head clinched it, he crumbled to the ground making soft sounds of negation.
“Get his wallet,” the head bastard commanded, and Julian almost chuckled. The wallet in question contained perhaps two dollars cash (if he hadn’t spent it after all), a debit card with exactly no money on it, and a coupon for a buy one get one free pretzel. He didn’t even have a driver’s license.
A rough hand fished the wallet from his pocket along with his phone with its cracked screen. He tried to find the strength to resist, but came up short. One of the bastards, he wasn’t sure if it was the lead bastard or the flunky bastard, called him a broke ass spic, threw the wallet down in disgust, and with this they departed. Perhaps they found wealthier victims down the lane, perhaps not. Julian didn’t know and he did not much care. Actually, he did care. He hoped they found a victim with a gun who shot the two of them in the gut so they could spend the rest of the night dying horribly. After a while, he picked his sorry self up and trudged home.
The next day he got a paycheck advance from his boss, picked up a pay-as-you-go phone to replace the one the hoods stole. He took some photos of his battered face and posted them on Facebook to the bemused and sometimes concerned reactions of his friends. A few of them swore revenge he knew they could never achieve, but by then he was no longer angry. Sad and afraid, but not angry.
Sometime later his bruises faded and the swelling subsided and that was that. Or, he thought that was that—but here he was hiding in a 24-hour convenience mart after having some kind of panic attack on a well-lit city street, so he reasoned there must be some residual trauma from that event. It was the only thing that made sense.
Julian pretended to consider a bag of pretzels as he reflected on this idea. It was elegant in its simplicity, there was a psychological cause and effect relationship that anyone could understand.
So why don’t you feel better? Asked an internal voice, Why do you still feel as though you are being watched?
Because it’s not that easy, he replied in his head so no one would think he was crazy, Just because I know why I’m feeling paranoid doesn’t mean I automatically stop feeling paranoid.
Julian’s inner dialogue was interrupted by the sudden realization that he had been standing there in the aforementioned chip aisle staring at a bag of pretzels for far longer than anyone would find acceptable. To save face, he bought it along with a bottle of soda selected at random. His efforts were in vain, however, as the sleepy-eyed clerk seemed to scarcely take notice of him, merely accepting his cash and murmuring a “get anything else for ya?” out of a robotic sort of habit.
Taquitos all but forgotten and unwanted snacks in hand, Julian stepped through the automatic doors and into a parking lot illuminated to a near-daytime brightness. The panic that brought him to this point had lost its finely-honed edge but left in its wake was an acute sense of dread. Dread, and also this treasonous inner voice that seemed to articulate all of his fear and trepidation in a way that seemed so terribly reasonable. It spoke up again in the borderland between the sanctuary of the gas station and the dim world beyond.
You’re being followed, it whispered.
I’m not, Julian insisted, trying his best not to look back over his shoulder. He was nearing the intersection of Eagle Drive and Carroll Boulevard. The townhouse style apartment he shared with his brother was still several blocks away.
Julian felt the skin on his back crawling as the crosswalk sign changed from red hand to white stick figure. With a glance to his left and right, he crossed.
This part of Eagle Drive was mostly commercial. Auto part stores, beer barns, check cashing places, that sort of thing. Nothing open 24 hours, of course, the convenience store so recently departed was the last such oasis he would find. It occurred to Julian that on other occasions he found himself walking home from the bar he would pass others on the sidewalk who were on similar journeys. Not so this time, not a single other pedestrian. Every once in a while a car passed, though even for coming on three in the morning the city seemed unnaturally deserted. He could not recall having ever felt so alone.
Now his skin was crawling all over. The urge to look back was almost overpowering, but he knew that if he did he would give in to the panic he could still feel bubbling deep inside him. If he could just keep his head down for a few more blocks he would be safe at home where he could smoke a bowl, pass out, and forget about this strange night.
He was abruptly aware he could hear the sound of his footsteps echoing in the pervading silence. This was good, wasn’t it? If he could hear his own footsteps then surely he could hear those of a pursuer, if one existed.
This damned voice was getting hard to ignore. It was the lack of distraction, that’s all. He just had a little fright with no reason behind it. Happens to everyone, especially intoxicated people who recently had the shit kicked out of them. Just a little fright and he let himself get pulled into a feedback loop. There was nothing but the empty streets to look at, and nothing but paranoid thoughts to think. Tomorrow he would look back on this and wonder what he possibly could have been afraid of. Maybe he would even laugh about it.
Julian did not dignify this with a response.
Julian started humming a song. One of his own, actually. It was one he had written years before and still performed at open mic nights from time to time. For about a block it seemed to do the trick. Recalling the lyrics, the melody, the rhythm, it occupied enough of his mind that he could block out other rogue thoughts for the time being. Perhaps long enough to get home.
The fear was still there, Julian could not fool himself into believing that this inexplicable feeling of being watched by some malicious entity was going away. It wasn’t. It made no sense and he knew it, but knowing that changed nothing. He had never felt something like this so strongly in his entire life and just that fact was alarming enough.
Julian hummed harder. He thought of more complex compositions. He pushed away sinister thoughts. He concentrated on putting one foot in front of another. He resisted the urge to walk faster. Walking faster would turn into running. Instinctively he knew it would give away to terrified flight. Every step brought him closer to home, and once home he would be safe. He was sure of it.
To this thought, the rogue voice’s response was a derisive laughter that spoke volumes. He ignored this too, and all of its implications. Another block down and he was in the part of Eagle that mostly consisted of other apartment complexes. He was at the home stretch and that made him feel marginally better.
But look at all those dark alcoves, all those entryways. So many places for him to ambush you. Look at this spot up ahead, that entryway. If someone was waiting there you would never see them in time. They could just jump out they could have a knife they could stab you to death before you ever-
His Jaw began to hurt and he realized he had been clamping his teeth together. His hands ached and he realized he had curled both of them into tight, painful fists. The muscles and the veins in his arms stood out under his skin like tectonic plates. Julian forced himself to take a slow, deep breath and relax. Deep breath. Slow release. Deep Breath. Slow release.
By minute increments he allowed his tension to drain from his body, even his heart rate began to fall. He stood there in the dark just like that, just breathing, until he felt somewhat closer to normal. He opened his eyes.
“I’m fine,” He said aloud.
He expected no response, but one came in the form of a terrible crash, echoing in the night and issuing from somewhere terribly close. A reasonable mind would have dismissed this sound like a cat knocking over a trash can, or something similar, but that was something Julian lacked that night.
He screeched his fright as the old panic flared in his veins, obliterating all the hard-won calm within him. There was no containing it now, he was already running, unaware his brains had given his legs the command.
Though he heard nothing but the sound of his feet slapping on the pavement and his labored breathing, he could feel his pursuer closing in on him. He could sense the hand, clawed and scabrous, reaching out to the back of his neck. He could feel the hot breath, wet and reeking, wash over him. He didn’t look back. To look back was madness. He could stand to feel his pursuer, but if he had anything to say about the matter, he would die without looking at it.
His heart and his head were both pounding and his own breath burned in his lungs; he cursed himself for every cigarette he ever smoked. Still, he couldn’t stop. Panic held the reins and wielded a terrible whip. Reason and thought had no chance of permeating the static, the buzzing in his mind like a hive of furious hornets.
Finally, he crossed the last street and found himself on the grounds of his own apartment complex. The few lights burning overhead offered little protection from the terrible press of the darkness surrounding him, and Julian did not stop, did not slow until he was at his own door.
He plunged his hand into his pocket and retrieved his keys, spilling loose change onto the cement, jingle-jangling every which way. He made no move to chase them down, simply scrabbled at the keyhole trying with jittery hands to stab his key in place.
He fumbled his keys and they landed among the less ambitious coins at his feet. His eyes glanced in all directions, straining to peer into the shadows all but certain the wraiths, the ghouls, the muggers, and the murderers would choose this moment to converge upon him. All he could see was his neighboring townhouses, a dimly lit parking lot, and empty sidewalks connecting them all. No threats, no gremlins or goblins slinking in the darkness.
Still watching, he crouched and groped at the sidewalk for his keys, eventually finding them right where they landed. Panic had faded away very nearly enough for him to start feeling stupid about the whole thing. The key slid into the lock this time without much resistance and before he knew it he was back inside, feeling positive his fear and paranoia would fade as soon as he smoked his bowl and stumbled off to bed.
Inside, with the door locked and dead bolted, Julian felt immediately less positive. His empty apartment seemed to be a landscape of shadows, darkened rooms, and blind corners. Everywhere he looked he saw masses that were probably nothing more than piles of clothes, a guitar stand, a hanging coat, but somehow resolved themselves into the perfect silhouette of crouching prowlers and other dangers.
For his own comfort, Julian set about switching on every light in the townhouse, armed with an undersized souvenir baseball bat his brother had acquired at a Rangers game. He didn’t honestly think the bat could do any real damage to an assailant but the other closest thing he had to a weapon was his guitar and that was upstairs, pretty much last stop. The staircase was a particular source of anxiety for him. It was a perfect ambush spot.
He took the stairs slowly, bat in one hand and his phone, in flashlight mode, in the other. The darkness above him seemed nearly tangible, a black mass of nameless menace crouched and ready to strike.
Did he hear a sound? He wasn’t sure. The stairs were creaky, but he didn’t think it was a creak. Maybe it was a thud or a knock. It seemed like it was coming from his brother’s room, but of course, his brother’s room had the wall that they shared with the neighboring townhouse. That was the trouble with a haunted apartment: You could never be sure if it was the sound of a ghoul or your neighbor going bump in the night.
At the second floor landing Julian stood, waving his flashlight phone in a fashion utterly ineffectual at permeating the gloom. Nothing pounced at him, not yet at least. Not yet. The apartment is empty! Nothing is going to get you, fuckhead! He told himself.
Again he felt the frustration of reason setting in and yet making no discernible difference in his feelings. He could tell himself there was nothing whatsoever to fear, that being the testimony of all available evidence, but the reasoning brain was not in charge of the situation. Something deeper, something primal held the reigns, some holdover of his earliest ancestors who had to fear predation. Something was wrong, he was in danger. Something beyond the five senses screamed this message to him.
Julian realized he was frozen on the landing, giving into the fear. He grimaced and forced himself to take a step forward, and then another. Before long he had reached the switch for the hallway light, and no longer needed his flashlight. He tapped away the light and stuffed his phone back into his pocket. He would check his brother’s room, just a cursory glance to dispel his fears, and then on to his own room where he could retrieve his stash to be enjoyed on the couch.
Before he could allow himself to over think the action, Julian swung the door of his brother’s bedroom, peered inside, and swung the door shut again just as quickly. Safe.
Of course, Julian’s mutinous inner voice told him, it was fairly dark in that bedroom, and you didn’t bother to turn on the light.
Julian immediately spun around and laid his hand upon the doorknob, though he hesitated to turn it. I could see in there well enough. I don’t need to open the door again. Besides, Juan would be pissed off if I turned his light on, he’d think I was snooping.
Conflicted, Julian leaned against the wall and tugged at his hair. How long was he going to be spooked like this? Nothing happened, nothing is going to happen. So why couldn’t he just stop, why couldn’t he relax? He didn’t know. Finally, with a frustrated growl, he swung the door open and flipped on the light.
Julian gasped and fell back against the hallway wall. Crouching on Juan’s bed, waiting to pounce, was… was…
A pile of blankets. Julian sighed and sunk down to the carpet, rubbing his forehead.
“This is ridiculous,” He said aloud, breaking the silence. His voice sounded strange in the empty apartment, strained. “I’m being ridiculous.”
The sound of his own voice made him feel slightly better, less alone. He rose to his feet and surprised himself by being confident enough to enter his own bedroom without some big to-do. He flipped on the light and no laundry or anything more menacing jumped out to assail him.
Nothing in his bedroom seemed awry, it was much as he left it. Bed with blanket rumpled at the foot, laundry piled in a corner, just as he liked it. Television on the dresser against the wall opposite the bed, pile of DVDs beside it. The closet was closed, and that he felt confident to leave unchecked. It was so full of junk that no room remained for boogeymen to lurk.
On his cluttered desk was a conspicuous book, clearly fake and reeking of old resin. This was, of course, his stash box. It contained a baggie with about a gram and a half of something dank, another baggie of schwag that was mostly shake and seeds, a grinder with a peace frog on the top, half a pack of papers, and a glittering purple glass pipe.
Julian grabbed his box, considered, and grabbed his guitar as well. If there was nothing to watch on TV, at least he could play some music. His fingers brushed the strings, producing a familiar and comforting sound. Julian allowed himself a smile. This would be just the thing, have a quick smoke and play something, probably Blink 182. Carousel. Yeah.
Juggling the stash box and guitar and working toward a free hand, Julian turned back to the door. The smile died on his face. He heard it this time, he definitely heard it. Footsteps, moving furtively down the hall. Bare feet on soft carpet. An invader, a skulker, a lurker. Something and it was out there, he heard it. He thought he heard it. He might have heard something. Dammit, He thought to himself. He stood perfectly still, holding his breath and listening with all his might.
Moments passed, and he heard nothing more. Nothing sinister, at least. He could hear the soft roar of passing vehicles and the hum of electricity in the walls. Nothing else. He didn’t hear any footsteps, furtive or otherwise. He was alone in the house, no one followed him on the walk home, he was in no particular danger, and he almost believed it.
In a few more moments he was back in the living room, and he slumped into the couch. TV on for noise, sorting leaf from seed in the concavity of an old Frisbee, guitar close at hand. The pipe was soon packed and he leaned back into the couch to watch a blue-haired cartoon scientist berate a wide-eyed teenager. Almost immediately a warm, calm feeling washed over him, and his head buzzed pleasantly.
Soon his fear was forgotten or at least pushed deep into a corner. The bowl cached, he picked up his guitar and strummed through the intro to Carousel, simple but catchy and much loved. Carousel turned into Dammit, which then transitioned to a loose medley of beloved riffs and melodies. Before long, his eyes were growing heavy and his strumming slowed, slowed, stopped. He drowsed.
Briefly, his thoughts turned to his stash, and the anger his brother would express if he came home to all that paraphernalia out in the open, but it was okay, so he told himself. Just a brief nap and he would put all those things away and crawl into bed. Forget about all the strangeness of the night, the terror of solitude, and all that. Just a nap…
Julian snapped awake, sending his guitar crashing to the ground as he sat bolt upright. His heart was thudding violently in his chest, a bird trying to escape its cage.
“Fuck! Fuck! Oh Jesus, Jesus,” Julian cried, raking his fingers through his hair.
Hands. Just as he was drifting off to sleep he could feel them on either side of his head. Hands? Claws, really. It was so real, so… And that sound? Like a scream, like something screaming his name right into his face, only? Only he didn’t hear it out loud. He heard it in his head. Didn’t he? There was no real sound, was there? It was only some sort of dream thing, wasn’t it? But why were his ears ringing? Why could he still feel that phantom touch? Oh Jesus, what the hell is happening to me?
Immediately he was wide awake again, hugging his knees to his chest, head snapping in every direction, and feeling eyes on him from around every corner, in every shadow. He could feel clawed, bestial hands reaching for the back of his neck, but would turn to find nothing. They were damned fast, whatever they were. Sometimes he could even feel their hot breath, almost hear it. Immediately he became aware of the sound of a low moaning, and realized he was making the sound himself.
At last, he remembered his phone, and tried to find someone still awake that could perhaps talk him down, but to no avail. He couldn’t even stand to look at his phone long enough to find a name in his address book, as it was time not spent watching the shadows. Every moment he spent focusing on his phone he could feel them gathering ever closer, just behind him. He could sense them, somehow. He threw his phone aside in disgust and flinched at the sound of it striking the coffee table.
Dawn. When was dawn? Not soon enough. God. It was unbearable, this doom hanging over his head, all around him but just out of sight. Constant footsteps: down the hall, in the kitchen, coming up and down the stairs. If he strained he could hear them. Footsteps, real or imagined it made no difference now, not here in this crepuscular limbo, this no-time. Here that line was erased, maybe for good. Real or imaginary, they’re both just abstract concepts anyways. Aren’t they?
Something changed. It was hard to define, but whatever it was, it cut through the thought-fragments and panic haze long enough to grant Julian something like clarity once again. It was silence. Not like before, that sort of late-night silence that was no real silence at all, not like this. It was as though time had stopped. Still. It was happening, finally, and the happening was heralded by a stillness.
The next thing Julian became aware of was the feeling of a charge in the air, like static. The way it must feel right before you’re struck by lightning. The hairs on his arms stood on end. The charge washed over him in waves.
Next came a vibration, pulsing and alive. It was everywhere at once—in the couch, on the floor, he could even feel it in his clothes. His clothes were vibrating! The whole house was vibrating, he could hear the creak and groan of the walls stretching and twisting against themselves.
The temperature dropped, noticeably. Twenty degrees, maybe more. And still the charge, still the vibration, still the creak and groan of a building straining against itself. Julian could feel his lungs burning and realized he had been holding his breath. He let it out in a wheeze and drew air back in through a throat constricted to pinhole size. His teeth chattered and the temperature dropped a few more degrees.
Julian’s attention was drawn to the corner of the room opposite him. There was nothing there, but still, there his eyes were drawn. Slowly at first, but gathering momentum while the charge, the vibration, and the cold reached their crescendos, he saw: The Shadows, all of the shadows, were coalescing upon that point. Somehow they were gathering.
The shadows began to assume a shape, like a dark lump, on the floor there in the corner. It appeared intangible but undeniably three-dimensional. The lump grew larger and sprouted pseudopodia. As Julian watched, transfixed, it finally realized its form: A man, though made of the darkness itself. It was a man-shaped hole in reality.
The Man-Shape reached out to Julian, radiating not malice, but rather a feeling of sorrow and regret. The thing mourned at Julian, there was no other way to describe it. It stood this way for a few seconds, made a sound like a sigh, and disappeared.
The effect of its departure was felt immediately by Julian: It was relief. He could breathe again. His heart rate slowed again to something close to resting. The fear was gone, the feeling of a presence was gone. Tears rolled down his eyes, and he realized through the haze that he could see the first light of dawn peeking through the blinds. Day had come.
The next thing Julian realized was that he had dozed off. The spent adrenaline and the lateness of the hour conspired together, and he had been out for nearly an hour. Julian gathered up his stash box and stumbled up the stairs.
No sooner had he set the box upon the desk, Julian was startled to hear a knock at the door. It could only have been Juan, who forgot his house key every once in a while. Julian sighed and stumbled his way back down the stairs and to the door.
It wasn’t Juan at all, knocking at the door. It was the police. Two of them, a man and a woman. Julian’s heart sank to somewhere around his ankles.
“Are you Julian Reyes?” The Lady cop asked. The name on her badge read Ferguson.
“Ye-es?” He replied, feeling a different sort of doom building.
“Your brother is Juan Gustavo Reyes?” The man cop asked. He was a Johnson.
“That’s right,” Julian asked, “What’s this about?”
Johnson looked to Ferguson and nodded slightly. Ferguson grimaced.
“I’m sorry, Julian,” Ferguson said, and he could see in her eyes that she meant it, “but your brother is dead. He died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.”
“What?!” Julian cried, incredulous. Hot tears stung his eyes and he blinked them away. “What happened? Died in the ambulance? What ambulance?”
“Can we come in?” Ferguson asked, and he nodded, leading them to the couch. He could smell the lingering aroma of pot and he was sure they could too, but they didn’t mention it.
“We believe it was an attempted mugging,” Johnson told him. His lips were pressed to a thin line. “Your brother’s car was found a short distance away, out of gas, and it seems he was walking to the service station another two blocks away. There was a struggle, and your brother was stabbed twice in the stomach and once in the neck. I’m sorry, Julian. He succumbed to his wounds before he could be stabilized. There was nothing they could do.”
They went on talking to him for a while about having a few questions, arrangements, things like that, but Julian had stopped listening. All he could think about was the sorrowful Man-Shape, and the way the feeling came upon him when he was two blocks from the gas station on Eagle Drive, right where his brother would die mere hours later.