The First of Many Strange Days

It had been a long, shitty, weird day and Abby was glad it was ending. The remnants of it flashed through her mind in flickering zoetrope flashes as she wrestled the last two heavy bags of trash along the narrow hallway from the café’s kitchen to the alley out back. She’d been seething when she’d left earlier, at Maggie for being her usual momma self and trying to fight Abby’s battles even if they weren’t worth fighting, at Jacob and his petty bullshit, but mostly at herself. In her head she’d been screaming vitriol, saying everything she knew she should have, just letting her anger and frustration loose, just once standing up for herself. In the end, that’s mostly what had her pissed off at Mags, not that she’d meddled, but that she was right, if she hadn’t Abby wouldn’t have herself. That, that was what hurt, that Abby betrayed herself at every turn.

She’d been so preoccupied berating herself and just cursing at life in general as she’d stormed down the crowded sidewalk, and that was when the first strange thing had happened. She bumped into some guy, a round shape in a rumpled grey raincoat, which in and of itself was an odd choice for the heat of the day. The face under the flat cap was ruddy, with a fat, bulbous tomato nose webbed over with veins, eyes already a bit cloudy, unfocused.

“Sorry miss, sorry” the round little man mumbled, pulling on the brim of his cap.

“Just fucking watch where you’re going!” The words snapped passed Abby’s lips before she could button them, stabbing into the continuing mumbled apologies. Passers by looked at her, just glances then back to whatever they had been preoccupied with, but still, Abby felt each set of eyes keenly and lowered her head to flee onward. Her eyes flashed down to the pavement, glimpsed the old man’s feet, then faced forward, then flashed back, needing confirmation. They’d been regular feet, in old boots or grubby shoes, they hadn’t been neat, flinty black hooves, no fucking way. He’d moved further on, the tide of the crowd hurrying him away, she lost sight of him in moments but still stood, the people drifting around her as she looked dumbly at where he’d been. She shook her head violently, generating more stares, then hurried on, thrusting the entire episode to the back of her mind.

It just kept up though, little things, all damn day. People at the bank, random passers by, just tiny flashes of oddness, a glimpse of purple, white and red skirts under the drab brown housecoat of an old lady on her stoop, as if beneath she was a Gypsy matron, the kind you might see in old movies. Or what she thought was a large, gleaming eye, acid green, luminous in the deep darkness of a storm drain, but that couldn’t have been. She definitely had trouble with the vivid, swirling cloud of moth wings fluttering about the head of a small girl being dragged along by her mother on some errand, a riot of shimmering color haloing her little blonde head as she pointed and gasped at everything she saw that caught her eye, squealing “mommy, want!!!” at street vendors’ wares and into shop windows. That one had taken a bit to shake off.

Even on shift, ensconced in the rock solid familiarity of the café, there were things wriggling at the edges of her sight, was that a tail peeping out, flicker twitching back and forth from under a table? Were the cat ears that girl and her friends sporting on their headbands? It was a trend, Abby was vaguely aware of that, but they didn’t look right, too far back and they looked so real…that was the first time that night Abby sent a tray of mugs crashing to the floor, trying to walk while staring back over her shoulder. That was just how the whole night went, mixed up orders, slopped coffee and tea scalding her hands, her thighs, bumping into things or worse, people. Any given night she’d usually end up with a headache just from the noise and frantic pace but tonight, with everything just going wrong and the insanity apparently come to claim her at last, her temples throbbed, each beat of her heart sent aching lumps of pain running across her temples. After they’d closed the door on the last customer it was all she could do to keep from crying. At least Jacob hadn’t been in tonight, whenever he was in the office during the day he never stayed for second shift, so she hadn’t had to deal with him or his staring or his fucking hands.

Max had been working the counter and it had been a long night for him too. He was a nice guy, but when it got busy like this and there were only two of you and one was not pulling her weight it could be hell. That was why, after cleaning up the main room, putting all the chairs on the tables, she’d let him duck out.

“You sure?” He looked incredulous, but was already reaching for his messenger bag when Abby told him to take off. He hesitated though, his hand almost seeming guilty of its eagerness. “There’s still the trash to be taken out and it’s really late, you don’t want help with it?”

“I do, but you’ve done your time Max, it’s good” Abby felt her head still throbbing, but it was a bit better now that the big overheads had been shut off, the neon signs no longer lurid and buzzing in the dark windows. She almost managed to make her grimace look like a weak smile. “It was a rough night and I didn’t make it any better for you, I’ve got it.”

“Thanks Abby, I owe you. We all have them you know, those days. I’ll cover for you a shift or something, kay.”

“I’ll hold you to it” this time she did smile and Max gave her shoulder a little squeeze.

“I’m good for it, promise” The words flew over his shoulder as Max walked out into the night, the front door closing heavy behind him. Abby had locked it up tight and went to finish, which was where she was now, lugging the last of the trash outside. She’d almost cursed Max for taking off when she saw that first shift hadn’t taken theirs out, but instead she just groaned and started hauling. This was the very last load and all Abby could see on the other side of the battered steel service entrance door was her bed. All she had to do was grab her bag and arm the alarm and then she would be free and she could put this absolute bitch of a day behind her.

Abby shouldered the heavy door open, shifting the bags awkwardly as she flicked her foot at the doorstop. It took her a couple of tries to get it down, propping the door open, the yellow light from the alleyway turning her skin the color of butter as she turned to toss the bulging sacks into the dumpster just to the left of the door. They weren’t supposed to keep it open, it locked every time it shut and they were just supposed to let it swing closed and use their keys to get back in, but Abby just wanted to be done and didn’t want to fuck with it. Here, out of even the weak ac, the night air was hot, sticky, clinging to her skin like oil. Abby paused, closed her eyes, took a deep breath in and wiped the back of her hand across her brow. The sound of rummaging from the dumpster across the alley behind her nearly made her jump out of her skin.

Very, very slowly, Abby turned around. There was an old street light over head, covered over with a warped tin hat that bathed the area immediately around the door in bright sodium yellow light but kept anything outside its radius bathed in shadow. Her eyes scanned the darkness but it just seemed too dense, it was like nothing at all existed beyond the border of illumination. Abby kept flicking her eyes back and forth, back and forth, animal quick, nervous, wary. It wasn’t a bad neighborhood, but it wasn’t great either and she was very, very aware suddenly of just how alone she was at two am in a dimly lit alley. She glanced over at the door, a portal back into a safe world when this one seemed so dangerous. She began to move towards it, trying to seem casual, not letting the urge to bolt to it take control. She cast one last glance towards the shadowy side of the alleyway and that’s when her heart froze, when what she was dreading most flickered ever so slightly into the rim of light, movement.

“Who’s there?!?” Even she could hear the edge of fear under her words and she winced, mentally kicking herself. What had she said anything? Why the fuck would she do that?!? Whoever it was might not have even known she was there. Well, they did now. There was another bit of rummaging, then a pause. Eyes straining, Abby caught the vague guess of a shape, something so much blacker than the darkness around it. It’s bulk was hunched over the edge of the dumpster as if whatever it was had been leaning down inside but now it straightened up. The shape was huge, bigger than anything had any right to be. It turned then, moving into the little circle of light slowly. Abby wished that it hadn’t.

Whatever it was was human shaped. The bulk of it though, it was like a big, lumpy slab of rock had decided it wanted to take a stroll. As it made its way slowly into sight she could see it was wearing a dark suit, the material of it worn, shabby and greasy, looking old fashioned, the cut of it almost antique. The menacing figure stopped just short of letting its face be seen clearly, a fact for which Abby thanked God over and over and over again but even the bit she could see was horrible. The skin was grey, dead, something that should be under the ground and buried. The head was round, massive, seeming to sit atop the table wide shoulders without any neck. It’s mouth was wide, lips two plump worms writhing together. The upper portion was shaded by a bowler hat, but the eyes still gleamed, reflecting the streetlight with chilly glittering. Abby could feel her scream clawing its way up from her belly, her throat aching with it.

“S’cuse me mum, dint mean ta startle ya” the voice was worse, the fact that it could speak was worse, so deep that it ran through her, turning Abby’s bowels to water. “I was wundrin’ if you might know the whereabouts of” here a massive, thick fingered hand fumbled in its coat pocket, retrieving a rumpled bit of paper “three oh four Cumberfield Row? Seems I’m a bit lost ya see.” It grinned and Abby might have thought it was trying to be friendly, reassuring, but the mouth it displayed ruined the attempt. If it had fangs, row after row of sharp shark teeth it would have been almost better. Instead, it had broad, flat teeth, gravestones in crooked lines, nothing that could tear or rend but would instead irresistibly grind, pulverizing anything caught between them.

Abby shook her head, backing into the brick wall, feeling the roughness of it beneath her sweating palms. It was real, but that meant that this was real too and oh God this can’t be real, it can’t, it can’t…she shook her head violently, in denial, shutting her eyes tight. That was when it hit here.

She want in the alley, she was underground, deep, deep underground in the lightless earth. She could feel it clotting in her mouth, her nostrils, thick with the scent of must and decay, feel it under her nails as she clawed at the thick clay. She couldn’t scream, couldn’t even breathe to scream, she was buried down with the worms and the dark, crawling things, they touched her, everywhere, here beneath the world, beneath mountains and oceans and all deep places, crushing, squeezing every last inch…

“Dint mean to scare you miss, be a right spot of trouble if I did so. Mebbe I should intr’duce m’self, I’m Mr. Cripple.”

Abby’s eyes slammed open and she drew in a long, ugly, ragged breath, the first it seemed in years and years and years. The alley swam back into view, the streetlight, the brick walls, and the nightmare. It was tipping its hat, why did that make it worse, why did it have to pretend to be human, the lie of it was what made it so much worse.

“Look what you’ve done now, mmmmmmmmmmade things so much worse than they had to be.” The new voice was soft, almost sweet, high, but strange still, sounding as if the speaker had trouble making the sounds properly. At the very corner of her eye Abby could see another shape, not as tall as the first. She didn’t want to look, didn’t want to take her eyes off the first thing in the dark, but her eyes turned traitor, looking over, needing to see. They regretted it rather quickly. If it had been any other place, any other time, it might have looked like an old lady, tall, thin, frail, in a long wool coat that was the color of fresh liver. It was old fashioned too, like something old English women in photos from the twenties might have worn. It even had a prim little hat perched atop its head. All the little touches like that just added to the absolute terror of everything. Whatever it was didn’t seem to move so much as glide, the body swaying with each step as if there were no bones beneath the skin, its face sagging like something wax left out in the hot sun, eye sockets deep and dark and black. Abby shrank back as this new thing approached, then turned and shied from the other, caught between.

“I’mmmmmmm Mizz Flay dear, and as my colleague said, we are a bit lost. We have an appointment we must mmmmmmmmmmm keep you sssssssssssee.” The words crawled up under Abby’s skin, like thin knives or scalpels. Whatever Mizz Flay truly was, it held its hands one over the other as it got nearer Abby, looking as though they were wearing ill fitting gloves of a pale color. Abby begged for them to be gloves. “We really mmmmmmmmmm shouldn’t be doing thisssssssss, but we’re in a bit of a mmmmmmmmmm bind.”

Abby still could feel her flesh crawling, as if it would escape, tear off her and run away on its own. She felt overcome, felt sickened, felt repulsed, but now not by this thing, but by herself. Her body disgusted her, it always had, it wasn’t really hear, it was an alien thing she was trapped inside, that she wanted to claw out of, she could see her fingers tearing at her flesh, ripping off her breasts, digging into her belly till she pulled out the wrongness inside of her…outside of her mind, Abby nearly swooned, staggering, could feel the sour taste of vomit dripping from her lips.

“Thissssssss mmmmmmmmm, is not going well” Mizz Flay retreated a bit and what passed for the real world slowly spun back into existence, at least a bit.

“You got a better idea then? Whole bloody world to work with, all the bloody streets lookin the bloody same, it’s a wonder anyone can find anyfink” Mr. Cripple rumbled from the near darkness, conjuring up new terrors of crushing and smashing.

“Look at their poor thing, she’s nearly mmmmmmmmmm frightened out of her ssssssssskin”

It was too much, too much, Abby was drowning, no, she was scrubbing off her ugly, ugly face with wire brushes, or standing on a platform, looking at an oncoming train and fighting the urge to jump in front of it…the thick, cloying night air trembled with her sobs, her eyes rolling back and forth, showing mostly whites, a tiny, panicked animal, so small, so fragile, hemmed in by fear, tears and snot and sweat gleaming on her face. The two things nattered back and forth amongst themselves, as each one spoke the waves broke over, drowning her slowly. The light inside her head flickered, guttering, the flame of her sanity was a breath away from being snuffed out.

Above, out of the purple grey night sky a familiar shape fluttered, landing upon the lamp above the door. A magpie, black coated and white collared alighted, wings ruffling along its back, head cocked as it glanced down, little black eyes sharp and bright. It was something real, something normal, an anchor Abby’s eyes and abused mind clung to like a spar on the ocean. It was a tiny piece of the everyday. Abby watched it, the movements of it, the way it shifted its tiny clawed feet, how it held its head, all somehow soothing. Until it spoke.

“Now then, now then, what’s all this then?”

It was too much. Abby stumbled, knees and palms scraping down onto the pavement as she struggled to right herself, the pain jarring, but it was what kept her moving, the reality of the sting. She knew, deep down she knew if she didn’t get away she would die, die screaming forever and ever and ever. She careened off the wall and into the diaphanous shape of Mizz Flay, just for a moment, the body beneath the clothing so repulsive soft. The fresh waves of self hatred, the urge toward the rending of her body nearly made Abby swoon but she held on, desperate. She ran then, out of the alleyway, down the street, not caring at all of the few glances from late night faces, all blurring in her speed. She ran until her legs shook, her breath fire in her lungs, until she thought her hammering heart had to burst from the strain, and then she ran some more. Her whole world became a tiny strip of concrete beneath her pounding feet, constantly shifting as she ran.

She didn’t think twice as she yanked open the outside door to her building, slamming it open loudly, didn’t think as her feet stumbled up the two flights, didn’t think how odd it was that she opened her apartment door without having to unlock it, her keys forgotten back at the café. She just slammed the door shut, putting her back to it, bracing her legs on the floor, shutting out the night and the monster’s she’d just discovered were in it. She stood, gulping down air, her shirt stuck to her in a clammy sheet, shaking, making gurgling sobbing noises in the dark.

“I’m very, very sorry you’ve had such a bad evening.”

Abby reacted, grabbing the heavy globe of blown glass she used to weight down her mail on the table beside the door, heaving it as hard and fast as she could in the direction of this new voice, this intruder into her home, her last safe place. In the dark silence she heard it caught, cat quick. Abby opened her eyes, looking towards the bookshelf where the voice had come from. The dim light spilling in from outside glinted frosty on the paperweight, held in a slender hand, the arm seeming to disappear in the shadows between the top of the case and the ceiling. Abby strained, seemed to pick out a shape, something perched atop the bookshelf that slowly, gracefully unfolded itself, stepping down onto the bare boards of the floor. Boots made a slight clunk as they hit. The shadow moved, slim, tall, stepping more into what light there was. The features were sharp, high cheekbones, narrow chin, dark hair falling in waves over either side, framing the face. Details flashed into Abby’s mind, prey instinct making her hyper aware. At least it looked more human.

“I do not tend to interfere in such fashion, but I do feel you are owed an explanation at the very least.” The voice was soft, not deep, but not high either, the tones even, the accent strange, unplaceable. Abby whimpered, eyes still wide, as whoever it was moved closer. “Please, try not to be afraid, I mean you absolutely no harm, I can assure you, although I know well how you might not believe me. Allow me to introduce myself, I am Lord Nevermore, The Beautiful Imposter.” The figure bowed low, formally, arms describing graceful arcs, one before its chest, the other behind its back. The figure straightened and as it did, Abby saw the eyes. Tigers eyes, irises swirling gold, brown, amber, ringing pupils of deep, deep black. She’d dreamed those eyes, felt them on her months ago on a very different night, looking startled, puzzled, but mostly alone, oh, so very alone. They glinted, looking at her, seeing her, seeing her completely and utterly, the hugeness of them was too much, far, far too much.

It was not a cinematic faint, no delicate crumple to the floor, no knees giving out to leave her a delicate puddle. Abby’s eyelids fluttered, what eye did show was pure white as she pitched forward, arms slightly back with the force of her plunge. If no one had been there, her head would have cracked and bounced of the hard floor, however, the dark intruder stepped forward, catching her neatly. Nevermore looked down at the unconscious girl in his arms and let out a long sigh.

“That…could have gone better.”


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