When dinner was done and the dishes washed and dried she turned off her music and didn’t even think about turning on the TV. No noise, there must not be any noise. Although she hadn’t noticed ears on the creature she was sure it had excellent hearing. She disabled the sound on her cellphone camera to eliminate that satisfying “click” of an aperture shutter that she liked.
She made sure every window was closed and locked, even placing braces to jam them from opening. She didn’t think the creature would be willing to break the glass, considering its naked appearance. In the late morning she’d discovered that she’d left the small window in the bathroom slightly opened at the top. Not tonight. Oh no, not tonight. Tonight it was closed and locked tight. Reluctantly she lowered the blinds.
She loved her corner apartment for all the light that came into it. But, if she was to observe and not be observed she needed to have blackness behind her. Anything that left a pinpoint of light was turned off or covered. She imagined that this is what people in the blitz must have gone through.
For the first two or three hours of the evening tenants occupied the outdoor tables and barbeque in the courtyard. It was a balmy night; perfect to gather around for drinks and conversation with friends.
No one bothered to look up at the windows of the old lady in the corner apartment. No one knew that she was scanning the shadows of the bushes, trees and lawn furniture seeking a creature she was sure wasn’t a figment of an overactive mind.
No one also knew that that morning that same little old lady had gone out and purchased a handgun. The shop owner had given her a quick lesson on how to load it and use it and an even quicker lesson on how to be a responsible gun owner. She determined she would only shoot at the creature if it came to her windows. After all, the only way anyone would believe her about it was if she had a body that was shot at close range and not holes in the walls of the building across the way.
Eventually everyone left the courtyard as the night got dark enough for the street lights and the motion light over the door to glow on. She hoped last night had been nothing but an incredibly realistic dream. She hoped that the tenant stating the damage to the door was done by rats was right. She knew that the hope was false, the truth was miserable and she was afraid; but determined to do something.
So she waited.
She didn’t have to wait long for movement in the yard. First a raccoon family scurried across the area. She smiled as the little ones followed their mother. This time, however, something was different. Normally Mama allowed her three babies to explore the area at will. Not tonight; if they started to veer away from her she grabbed them and pulled them close to her, leading them out of the yard as she cast nervous glances over her shoulder.
She waited more and realized she hadn’t seen a rat. This was a yard in the city; there were always rats in city yards. But tonight? None. Leaning forward she lifted the blind a little more to look into the trees and bushes for any kind of movement and again, nothing.
Finally the neighbor’s lean, white cat came into the yard. Usually it sauntered through, queen of its domain and all it observed. Tonight, however, she slunk into the yard, belly close to the ground, head swiveling left to right, hissing and spitting and running so fast its hind legs looked like they’d passed her front.
And then nothing.
Even the air stilled. Leaves didn’t rustle. Bats didn’t “ping” on their nightly quest for bugs. She felt as though she was in a giant bell jar where no sounds came in and no sounds escaped.
Into that awful stillness slid the creature. Mimicking the cat it, too, was low to the ground; not crawling on all fours but almost. She found herself wishing it was crawling, that would make it less human looking.
It looked as it had last night. Bare skin the color of an oil slick on water, which is actually no real color but more of a rippling of a multitude of colors.
A bat, no longer able to ignore its hunger, zoomed past and the creature flailed its arms at it but the little night flyer swooped away. She cheered silently. Although not a fan of bats she didn’t want to see what would have happened if it had been snatched from the sky. She surmised a pot, some broth and seasoning wouldn’t be part of its future. She wondered if that was why there weren’t as many rats around lately?
It was at the door again. Tonight, however, its movements were careful and methodical, as if planned, which meant there was intelligence working there. Yes, it could be scared off, but it had obviously set itself a goal: entry into the building. She felt, after watching it two nights in a row, it would either obtain its goal or choose a new target, an easier one and one she knew existed if it turned around and looked in her direction.
A car backfired on the street beyond the courtyard’s privacy hedge. As quickly as the creature had appeared it disappeared into the shadows. She reached for her other purchase, never taking her eyes off the yard.
In addition to the gun she had also bought a pair of night goggles. She explained to the clerk she was trying to find a rat’s nest. He was like so many other people in that once the old woman had paid for her purchases – and her card had not be declined for insufficient funds – she was no longer of any interest to him. She smiled as she put the goggles on; having carefully read instructions and gone online to make sure she used them properly. Yes, she thought, there was a great advantage to being an invisible person. So much easier to work in the shadows, a commonality she shared with the creature.
She had mapped the courtyard earlier, laying out a grid work similar to what she’d seen used in TV and movie police shows. As she scanned the bushes around the yard for any sign of the creature she marked the grid. A red “X” was a possible hiding place. A red “X” with a green plus sign meant possible with reservations and an “X” with a minus sign meant possible but not likely due to one of three reasons:
- Not much coverage in which to hide.
- The area had a lot of traffic with neighbors walking around the yard. Putting herself in the creatures non-existent shoes she felt it would prefer a lonely place to hide.
- She didn’t have a third “reason,” but more of a feeling that the creature didn’t like that particular spot. She had nothing to base the feeling on, but her instincts had served her well all her life, it seemed foolish to ignore them now. So for no particular reason she could articulate, certain squares in the grid had a red “X” and a minus sign.
The creature didn’t appear that night. When false dawn crept up and the twitterings of the early birds could be heard she went to bed.
She slept well, not because she was tired but because she felt useful again and had completed the first part of what she hoped would be a job well done; even if no one ever found out about it.
During the afternoon she inspected the yard, trying to feel if perhaps she was being watched from the bushes or some remote dark spot. All she felt was the sun and the breeze of a lovely, warm afternoon. When a neighbor asked her what she was doing she said she was looking for the perfect spot to plant a rosebush when the season was right. After all, it’s always best to plan ahead for her anticipated new cuttings from a dear, old friend up north. If the neighbor didn’t go away after that she launched into the need to search for the right amount of sunlight – not too much, not too little – and the proper aeration and quality of soil, shade from other plants, activity of people, and an encyclopedic lecture on proper rose gardening. Eventually, eyes glazed, the nosy neighbor would stagger away under the weight of the information and she could continue on as Granny, Creature Huntress hiding behind the guise of a mad rose gardener.
Grid after grid was checked off as showing no evidence of the oily man. She was both disappointed and elated. She wanted to find all the spots he was using to access the yard but the elimination of grids squares meant he might be restricted to only one or two spots – all the easier to catch or stop him.
Finally, in the far corner of the yard – cross grid 42 – she found something; a slight indentation in the soil and a leaf with a slick of some sort on it. She reached for the leaf and paused. What if what was on it was caustic or poisonous? But then, the leaf looked okay. She pondered this a moment, her lips pursed and pulled to the side, her eyes narrowed. Making up her mind she clipped the leaf with a pair of shears and holding it with the shears moved it into the sunlight for a better look. It promptly disintegrated.
She wondered if that would happen to the creature too. And for that, she felt sorry for it. The feeling surprised her. At night, when she saw it trying to get into the other building wing all she felt was fear and revulsion. But still, it was relegated to night prowling, hiding, slinking about in the dark and digging at the door.
Digging at the door. Why? Why was its focus on that door, or for that matter, that building? Why that particular building? After all, it was the mirror image of hers.
Two buildings facing each other across a common yard and garden. Same landlord, same architect, same builder, same awnings, same materials, brick, mortar, wood, glass, same everything, except, of course, inhabitants.
She knew all of the tenants in both buildings. You don’t live forty years in a place and not know your neighbors so she concluded that what was in the building was what the creature was after.
She had stopped inspecting her grid while she pondered this new thought but was roused by a faint rustling up close to her right ear. She could feel a hot breath on her neck.
She forced herself to back slowly away from the bush only to discover the rustling was caused by a twig snagged on her scarf, the hot breath had been supplied by her imagination. Her sigh of relief scared a nearby robin searching for worms.
She braved starring hard into the shadows and prayed her gaze wouldn’t be met by two malevolent eyes staring back. It wasn’t.
She took her notebook, pens, grid and thermos to the picnic table to contemplate her new thought: Why this building and why not hers?
On her tablet she logged into the landlord’s site and then into the tenant’s page to go over the list of people.
Singles, couples, working, retired, business owners, artists. Only one thing stood out from this very normal micro gathering of humanity.
There was a three month old baby in the building across from her.
She felt as if she’d been plunged into a vat of slushy ice water. It was all she could do to stop herself from crying out. The baby. That had to be it. The creature was after the baby.
She rejected “why” it might be after the baby. “Why” didn’t matter. There was no reason on earth that could justify it. There was no “perhaps the poor creature was lonely – or lost its own baby” bullshit as far as she was concerned.
She no longer felt one single nanogram of sympathy for the thing. There was no compassion, no reaching out, no softness.
She stared hard into the bushes. “You’re gone,” she whispered.
Back in her apartment for the rest of the day she went over and over the grid eventually leaving smudges from food, hand lotion and fingers lingering too long over a possible spot. Now and then she scanned the yard. If someone was there; doing yoga, reading at the table or enjoying the firepit she looked away. But if it was empty she pulled out her binoculars and went over every inch of the area that corresponded with a grid square. Fortunately all her neighbors knew she was a bird watcher so if they did see her with the binoculars they thought nothing of the old lady in the window, binoculars pressed to her face. If anything, when they did see her peering closely into the bushes they too would look, wondering what she was watching.
If they only knew.
At the end of the day she had a sore back, her shoulders could have used a good rub down and she’d drunk much too much coffee. But – and it was a strong “but” – she believed she had found two possible points of entry for the creature and one probable point.
As night closed in she made ready for him and waited.
He didn’t come out.
For three nights in a row nothing happened. The cat and raccoon behavior didn’t change, they were still wary crossing the yard. Yet, something was different. Even one of her neighbors mentioned it to her.
In the laundry room she tried to chat with the downstairs neighbor directly below her. Normally their chats – although brief – were pleasant and lively as they shared the same sense of humor despite several decades’ differences in ages. But that day the young man was subdued. She asked if anything was wrong and all he could say was that he felt “off.”
She pressed for an explanation to which he made several attempts to do so but finally gave up with a shrug and said it was because of the yard. She thought she must have looked thoroughly flummoxed because he went on to explain that the courtyard was no longer a comfortable place to relax. He couldn’t say exactly what it was that had changed the area; it wasn’t a bad smell or even an intrusive noise. It was just a “feeling” that you got when you were there. He struggled to provide more information and finally said the yard felt oppressive, as if something bad had happened, or was going to happen. He asked her if she’d noticed that there were fewer people in the yard. And the ones who did go there didn’t stay long. It was no longer a welcoming place.
By then he’d finished folding his laundry and, wishing her a good day, left. She thought about what he’d said while she folded her own laundry and she realized she’d been so caught up in her grid mapping she hadn’t noticed the absence of her neighbors. She had, but hadn’t really given it much thought as to why they might not be there.
Once back in her apartment she consulted her thesaurus for an equivalent to “feeling off.” Nowhere on the list of alternative words was “filled with dread.”
The old woman now had a new routine for her days. She slept late, although not that much later. She noticed if the creature didn’t appear before 3:00 a.m. the night before it didn’t come out at all so instead of getting up at seven she got up at ten. Where she used to spend leisurely mornings doing puttery things around the apartment she stepped up her efficiency to get it all out of the way so that by the early afternoon she finished shopping and running errands – or having coffee with friends – and then back to the apartment to get ready for the night’s vigil. But only after a quick turn around the yard. She didn’t expect to find anything and she didn’t, although she knew that could change.
Once dinner was out of the way she’d spend an hour on the internet combing through a myriad of far-out sites glutted with conspiracy theories and urban legends about creatures, none of which came close to the creature she was observing. Then a quick nap before night took over and then the vigil.
All through this day, however, her neighbor’s remark about feeling “off” nagged at her. She knew why he felt that way and wondered if perhaps he’d seen it, too? Then again, she felt she knew him well enough to know that if he had she would have picked up on it. He had been subdued, yes, but not to the point of hiding a secret like this. She’d have to make a point of seeing him tomorrow. Maybe she’d bake cookies and take him some.
And with that thought pushed to the side for later she scanned the yard. She’d heard about a new biodegradable glitter and knowing how glitter sticks to everything had found some in black at the local hobby shop. It cost more than she wanted to spend but she felt putting a light dusting in the yard might help her track the creature and being biodegradable it wouldn’t hurt her birds; she hoped. Surely he’d drag it everywhere he went, what with that oily skin of his. Of course, so would the cat and the raccoon family but only if they came from the exact same area that the creature came through – something they hadn’t done yet.
When she shined a light on it it reflected back so she’d be able to track him even in the dark. She allowed herself to feel a teensy bit smug about the idea.
It was getting late and again he wasn’t in the yard. The parents of the baby had thankfully taken it back east to see family and she wondered if that’s why there had been no activity? Yet, would her neighbor feel “off” if the creature wasn’t around?
She sighed and glanced around the yard again and thought about going to bed. But, like the last moment rally by a losing sports team the neighbor’s white cat bounded into the yard puffed to twice its size and angry. It turned to face what was chasing it.
“No Kitty!” She thought. “No, no, no! Run! Go past the hedge to the sidewalk, he won’t go near the street. Run!”
But the cat couldn’t hear her thoughts and hunched its back. Its tail slashed the air and its ears flattened against its head.
A large Tom – one she’d never seen before – ran into the yard. She almost relaxed thinking it was a normal cat fight but instead of fighting each other the cats took up fighting stances ten feet apart and facing the same direction. Their yowls traveled the octaves from guttural earthquake rumbles to screeching banshees.
The creature pounded out of the exact spot she thought it might and ran straight at the two cats. They attacked with all the ferocity of their jungle born cousins.
The noise of the fight reverberated between the buildings and her own cat ran under the couch and moaned in fright.
The creature was fast but the two cats were liquid on a trampoline. No matter how quickly he grabbed for one it was gone and the other was slashing at him as it attacked from another side.
Lights snapped on across the courtyard and a window slammed open.
No shouting. No yelling for quiet. Just a cascade of steaming water in the cold night air and the fighters scattered; the two cats in one direction together and the creature back to his hole in the darkness.
First silence. And then the neighbor yelled at the fighters to not come back as he closed his window.
The old woman stared into the yard and realized there was no going to sleep now.