This story is by Dusty Thorne and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
Crying out, Frank Apple bursts from his trailer at 8:22 AM on a Saturday, his clown makeup only half-done as he jabs at the cracked screen of the phone that had refused to wake him. He has a birthday party to make balloon animals at in eight minutes, and he doesn’t even know where he’s going yet. At 36 years of age, he’d thought he’d finally reached a point of no longer having to endure humiliating, odd jobs to scrape by, but as it would take months to repair his water heater with just his bi-weekly paycheck, he has little choice but to sacrifice his personal dignity until he has hot water in his home again.
With barely enough hair left on his balding head to keep his rainbow wig pinned down, the neon, curly monstrosity writhes in the wind like a living thing as Frank dives into his rusty car, his phone’s navigation app choking to life with a voice so croaky with glitches that Frank is half-surprised it’s not begging for the sweet mercy of death. Heaven help him, he has backup clown makeup in the glove compartment, and so as his phone rasps out directions, he scoops the makeup into his lap and keys his car’s ignition. As if to sympathize with the strangled pleas of Frank’s phone, his car makes a pained, screechy noise as it leaves the curb, a noise that Frank had pointedly decided many months ago to ignore except in case of either the engine exploding, or a mandatory state inspection, whichever one came first.
About five minutes into his drive, Frank follows his struggling phone’s directions down an unfamiliar side road. The area seems pleasant enough, but also unusually quiet. Frank can see no people here: not around the brick red apartments lining the crumbling sidewalks, nor even anyone else driving. Momentarily alone, he adjusts his mirror at the first traffic light he encounters so that he can draw a fire truck red grin around the neutral curve of his mouth. When that’s done, he takes an eye shadow pen and begins drawing a sparkling, blue star over his left eye.
A flicker of darkness across his face makes him pause. Eye shadow pen in one hand, he peers through the windshield at the quiet street outside. The traffic light above him is still red, and nothing seems unusual, so he puts the eye shadow pen back to the bags under his eyes and lazily glances out the driver’s side window.
He screams almost immediately.
Well over twelve feet tall, there is a man-shaped creature crouching beside Frank’s car. The creature is made of shadows that continuously churn around a set of eyes glowing a deep, burning red, like hot coals, and Frank can see the shapes of buildings through its translucent skin. When this non-human being notices Frank gaping at it, it stretches a spidery, long-fingered hand towards him.
Frank screams again. Slamming his squeaky, giant purple clown shoe down on the gas pedal, Frank rockets his car into the empty intersection. Dollar store makeup pens fly all over his car, ricocheting across every surface and leaving color stains behind as he swerves around.
Things only worsen when the shadow materializes in the passenger’s seat, its glowing, red eyes narrowing at Frank from just a few inches away. Gasping, Frank loses control of his steering wheel. His car bangs up onto the curb, colliding with a newspaper bin and scattering gray paper like a flock of pigeons.
Frank recoils, smashing white and red makeup over the door’s interior. Seconds later, he makes a noise he’s embarrassed to admit he can only compare to a startled turkey’s warbling. He scrambles outside, falling to the sidewalk before scampering across the road as fast as his big shoes will allow.
Only when he’s cleared the road does he notice something vital: the shadow is not following. Wheezing, Frank leans against a metal blue mailbox and stares at his car, which is releasing gray smoke from its tailpipe and puttering sadly. His wig is partly covering his eyes, so he shakily pushes the neon curls back and tries to bring his heart back from its lodged place somewhere between the afterlife and his left lung.
Suddenly, from the inside of his car, he hears his phone squawk and sputter, “…make a U-U-U-U-U-U-U-U-U-U-U-U-turrrrn!”
The broken phone keeps repeating itself, giving Frank the unwelcome urge to see if the shadow has taken it hostage. He creeps over crumbling pavement until he can see into his car, where the shadow is squinting at the panicking, stuttering phone. The phone floats oddly in the translucent shadow’s hand, and when the shadow notices Frank approaching, it gestures up and down with the phone in a way that wordlessly asks, What on earth are you wearing?
Frank stands in his drooping wig and polka-dotted suit, already fearful, but now embarrassed, too. He flushes hotly under his sticky makeup, shuffling in place before saying, “It’s… for a job. You know.”
The shadow leans back and nods. Though it has no discernible face, Frank has the impression of it saying, Ah, I see.
Seconds later, the phone in its hands drops, and the shadow swirls into a mist, pouring like spilled oil from the open window and onto the sidewalk. Flat on the ground, it darts between two buildings, and then it is gone.
Heart pounding, Frank places a sweaty palm on the rusted edge of his car door, wondering if cold showers can lead to hallucinations. He looks around to see if anyone else witnessed this, but there is still no one in sight.
He gasps then, remembering being late for the party that would lead to his water heater being repaired. No matter what earth-shattering revelations he’s just had, he still has bills to pay.
He dashes into his car, while his broken phone continues having the existential crisis that Frank himself doesn’t have enough time or money to afford.