Heather Terry is a high school educator in Akron, Ohio. She has a Master of Arts in English from Kent State University and is an adjunct professor with her alma mater as well as Tiffin University. You can read more of her writing on her blog and follow her on Twitter (@curious_words).
Friday morning, Melinda Frey had resolved to get an early start on the day. The unexpected absences of Bill, one of their account managers, had increased their workload for the week, so the only way she could complete her tasks was to put in the hours early. If she could just get the last of the filing done by lunch, she had a chance of convincing the manager to let her sneak out early for the weekend.
Shortly after 6:30 am, she pulled into the parking lot adjacent to her building. Having arrived nearly an hour and a half early, she was unsurprised by the lot’s emptiness. In fact, the only other car she could see in the lot was Lisa Toolinka’s ancient, though well-kept, Buick.
Sighing, Melinda crossed the lot and entered the building, moving to the elevator lobby nearest the entrance. Toolinka’s presence would not make her morning easier. The woman had been following Melinda around nagging and tutting at her endlessly, especially when she tried to get to the extra storage in the basement. She’d hoped that by arriving so early, she could get downstairs and back before the woman ever realized she’d been there.
Toolinka was in particularly rare form this week. Melinda had always found the wiry old secretary to be miserly and overbearing, but this week she glowered suspiciously at Melinda, her pale blue eyes squinting from behind horn-rimmed glasses, refusing to relinquish the access key Melinda needed. Instead, on Monday she had insisted on accompanying her on each of Melinda’s forays to the basement and then tutted after her at every step. She refused to let Melinda even one step deeper into the storage area than was necessary, and this bizarre arrangement had persisted all week.
Inside the office it was completely dark, save for slivers of dim morning light peeking in around the shades at the far end past the cubicles, with not even a stray monitor or two lighting the room.
“Hello? Mrs. Toolinka?” Hearing no answer, she quickly strode across the hall and reached inside the door, fumbling with the light switch. Nothing happened. She chewed on her lip, unsure who to call. Normally, if they had a power issue, she’d inform Toolinka, who’d then contact, as she called it, “all necessary and appropriate persons.” But Toolinka’s desk was empty. Maybe that’s why she’s already here, dealing with this, Melinda reasoned. Well, with her here, I’d better wait for her before pillaging her precious storage.
Taking a seat at her desk, Melinda fidgeted restlessly, tapping her fingers impatiently on the desk. She felt oddly jittery.
“I have got to lay off the espresso,” she muttered, pushing away from her desk only a moment after sitting. Returning to the office entrance, she noticed an empty hook on the wall behind Toolinka’s desk. The label beneath it read Basement Access. Melinda shook her head at her stupidity. “Or maybe I need more coffee instead. Of course she’s gone down to the breakers, the damn power’s out.”
Without the key to operate the lift past the first level, she’d have to take the stairs after the ground floor. She pursed her lips. She hated those steps; they were both creepy and dangerous. Although most of the office building had been renovated in the past two years, the building owner was in no rush to push the work through to update the basement, it seemed, no matter what his tenants said. As a result, the steps into the basement were old, rickety and unnerving.
Even so, turning back and abandoning Toolinka to deal with the power situation alone felt wrong. Sighing, Melinda closed her eyes and sighed, opening the door to the stairwell.
Once at the basement entrance, Melinda pushed the heavy metal door open and eyed the staircase as they descended away from her into the lower level. The door creaked, its deep groan echoing down the stair, making her shudder. Though the newly-painted hall and hard cement floors of this building offered a stark contrast to the basement of her childhood, she couldn’t help but imagine the dank stench that had permeated the latter.
The dark shroud below the stairs was palpable; despite her best efforts, she was hyper-aware of how it clung beneath and behind her as she descended. The lack of risers between steps was not sufficient enough of a gap to lighten the storage area beneath the steps. Memories of her fears as a child lurked in the darkness beneath those steps.
She shook her head. Pull it together. This is ridiculous. Her chest felt hollow and her heart hammered wildly against its confines as she stepped down to the cold cement floor.
“Mrs. Toolinka? Mrs. Toolinka, are you down here?” Her voice sounded strange echoing back to her. Taking a few steps further, she looked around trying to remember if she’d ever seen where the breakers were. As she passed the first rows of shelving, a soft scraping noise, as if something were dragging across the cement, broke the silence behind her.
Whirling, she quickly surveyed the area, finding nothing out of place. “Mrs. Toolinka? I’m— I’m here now.” No response. “Okay, Mrs. Toolinka, I’m just going to wait upstairs. Let me know if you need anything.” Her heart pulsed so hard in her throat she thought she was going to be sick. She began making her way back to the stairs, her legs moving clumsily.
Wrapping her hand around the railing once more, she released a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. Stupid. I’m like the little kid who’s scared of the dark or the damn boogeyman.
She had only taken three of the steps before she saw something glitter in the darkness from between the slats. Taken aback, she froze as the aged secretary lurched forward out of the darkness beneath her, her left foot twisted at a sickening angle and dragging uselessly along behind her.
Bony hands reached through the steps and clasped tightly about Melinda’s ankles, spittle bubbling on Toolinka’s lips as she snarled. A hard yank toppled the younger woman, causing her foot to become ensnared between the steps.
The scream rent from Melinda’s throat ended abruptly as her head collided with the railing. Black spots danced dizzyingly with the bright lights exploding in her vision.
Toolinka crawled, limbs working disjointedly, up the stairs and grappled at Melinda’ s wrists as the younger woman struggled to free her feet from the steps.
“ungh—no! Stop, Toolinka whatareyou—” Melinda’s vision began to clear as a fresh surge of adrenaline pumped into her veins and she screamed again. Toolinka’s pupils had consumed the cold blue of her eyes, and the whites were an angry, bloody red.
With unnatural strength, Toolinka forced Melinda onto her back and wrenched her arms apart. As her victim struggled beneath her, the secretary opened her mouth wide and her nightmarish eyes rolled back in her head. Melinda, pinned hopelessly, watched with growing revulsion as a slimy, bulbous thing was heaving its way free of her captor’s gullet.
As it reached the opening of the woman’s mouth, thin, spider-like legs emerged and it clung there for a moment, recovering. The creature twitched, and Toolinka’s body shuddered, going rigid, and the thing pulled itself free of her mouth to cling over her face as it recoiled a ribbed tentacle from her throat to where it was attached along its belly.
Melinda, struggling to find footing, fought to untwist her legs from between the steps, the metal frame cutting painfully into her calves. A dark fluid now leaked from the older woman’s lips, though her hold had lessened none.
Horrified, Melinda watched as the posture of the thing perched on Toolinka’s face changed. Its stance widened and its eyeless head angled at hers. She barely had time to clamp her mouth shut, teeth gnashing together so sharply she thought she felt one crack, before it thrust the newly-freed tentacle at her, seeking entrance.
Flinging herself from side to side, she fought ferociously against the unforgiving grip. The creature reared back and launched itself onto Melinda’s face, its legs piercing mercilessly into the sides of her head.
Melinda’s screams, muted by lips she resolutely held clamped, pierced the dark air as white hot pain ripped through her head, followed by waves of disconcerting numbness.
Entirely against her will, her muscles slackened, and her jaw unclenched.
The creature released its hold, withdrawing its legs from her skin. Almost tenderly, it grazed her lips with its forelegs, peeling them apart and, with languid ease, it slipped its tentacle between her lips and began working down her throat. Pushing itself backwards, it maneuvered the rest of its body past her teeth and worked its way into the moist inner folds of her throat.
Melinda, her eyes frozen open, stared unblinkingly at a mass she hadn’t before noticed on the ceiling near the opposite wall. Hanging in the rafters was a form nearly six feet in length and covered with a dark substance cementing it in place. Unable to look anywhere else, Melinda studied it until, with growing dread, she realized at one end of the form she could see a shock of red hair. Bill, she realized. It wasn’t illness that had kept the account manager from work.
Pleading prayers echoed in her head as she felt consciousness slipping away. The creature’s toxins spread from the wounds on her head and burned through her veins. The paralytic worked its way deeper, now immobilizing not only her limbs, but her core.
Abject terror seized her. Her ribs were no longer heaving in their efforts to allow her lungs to expand, and darkness began to creep in around the edges of her vision as her heart, which had been beating furiously moments before, began to slow.
Sensing its prey weakening, the creature maneuvered itself more quickly. Finally having heaved itself deep enough within her, the creature pushed its tendril through the soft tissue of her torso, twisting and fusing it within her spinal cord, making Melinda’s body arch upward as air forced its way into her lungs as it released antibodies into her spinal fluid.
Panting in place only a moment more, she easily reversed the grip Toolinka’s body had on her arms and began hauling her body to the far, dark corner beneath the red-haired man. Melinda gazed at his encapsulated form with darkening eyes until she discerned the slightest of movements.
The skin, stretched taut across his distended abdomen, writhed with the movements of its incubating guests.
Satisfied with his progress, Melinda maneuvered the frail, graying body into place.
She knew what she had to do.