Amber awoke to the sound of a gust pummeling the window pane. The window was open a crack, and the white drawn curtain waved. Goosebumps scattered on her arms and shoulders as she felt the cold draft sticking to her skin. She sat on the edge of the bed and reached for the night lamp. She flicked the switch, then grabbed her notebook and jotted down on the blank page “Day 4.”
Unable to fall back asleep, Amber got up and headed to the tall oval mirror. She examined the dark rings under her eyes and her pale demeanor. Her sleeping sessions had been lasting only four hours lately—she knew quitting cold turkey would be hard. Amber took it upon herself without help or any kind of intervention. Last night’s conversation with her childhood friend Teresa replayed in her mind, and her cheeks burned with shame. Amber was a member of the seventy-five-ounce club with Teresa. For the last two years, they’d meet every Friday at Teresa’s place to down all kinds of shots and beer. Amber was hooked on the shot blended with reptile blood—one of her exotic friends fused with this ritual. She raised her chin, let her chest out, and felt the lightness in her body. Amber realized she had to dump her friends if she wanted to overcome this battle.
Amber walked away from the mirror to head to the wardrobe and a hint of malted barley clogged her nostrils. She wondered if she had an ounce at night, maybe in her dreams. The stench suggested the source was nearby. Amber surveyed her environment. No bottles or cans. Her stomach twisted as the smell of roasted barley climbed up her airway. Memories of Friday night’s dinner at the pubs spooled. Standing at the center of her bedroom, unable to resist, her legs shook. Then tremors seized her chest and her heart quaked. She wailed as she had sensations of a razor blade stabbing into her chest. The stray chopping throughout her body felt like her limbs were on the verge of cracking into chunks and then dropping like a Jenga tower collapsing. She howled. Amber sniffed and questioned if the demon was dancing on the dresser. She snorted, then drew to the closet and stuck her nose in to the scent of waxed leather and fragrance. No bottles, no cans. As the undesired odor dissolved, she regained her senses. Eyes closed, she sighed, laughed it off and figured it must have been the withdrawal syndrome. Amber reasoned quitting cold turkey was tough. Was the battle harder than she thought?
Amber lifted her nightshirt, then slipped in her pair of denim and a plain tee-shirt. Then, grunting trailed from the dim hall, which linked the bedroom to the entrance door of the house. She crossed the chamber and stood before the shadowy corridor. A lamp sat in the middle, barely illuminated the hallway. Amber gave ear to the loud silence. Was it the withdrawal symptoms or her mind playing tricks on her?
“Amber,” said a muffled tone, uttering from the hall.
Her brows lifted as she recognized the voice. “Teresa?” She squinted her eyes as she glared at the darkness at the tip of the hallway. “Teresa?”
A silhouette appeared at the end of the hall; its facial features were blurry. Amber’s heart pounded. Cold chills scaled up her spine and her eyes enlarged as she knew the shape. “Teresa? How d’you get here?” Its shadow stretched forward on the floor. “Teresa? Answer me!” The shadow vanished.
Staring at the gloom, Amber passed her fingers through her hair. It must be the withdrawal symptoms. The air in the hall compressed. She needed to step out to grab some fresh air arose. Amber rushed back to her closet, grabbed her jean jacket and slipped in it. Squealing panned in the corridor. She sailed into the bedroom and froze. A soft screeching emanated from behind the walls and she leaped.
“Amber.” A guttural voice emerged from the darkness, the opposite end of the corridor. The hair on her neck raised. The air grew stuffier. Some kind of malevolent force prowled.
She cupped her ears and closed her eyes. The young woman shivered as she blinded herself from reality. Amber opened her eyes. Fissures surfaced on the wall. She uncovered her ears. The squeaking raced in the wall, haywire. Her maddening gaze traced the web of cracks. TA whiff of rye and corn teased her nostrils, and her stomach aroused. Her inner demons tormented her soul. Quitting cold turkey was much tougher than she had imagined. The opening at the bottom of the wall, at the floor level in the heart of the hallway, next to the table with the lamp, captured her attention. Brows raised, she observed the tiny tail wagging and produced a grin. Amber strolled toward the hole. She crouched, glided her hand into her pocket, grabbed her phone, enabled the torchlight and spotted the hole. Eyes widened, she checked out the void through the tunnel. The grating disharmony amplified. Her head twirled and her ears ached. A sudden burst of rage jolted her. The blood in her veins turned into lava, and her moaning into howling. With a fit of fury, she dipped her fist into the hole, and pulled the drywall to see what lurked behind the walls. She then aimed the torchlight into the spacious opening and scanned the rotten two-by-six foundation beams and the chewed electrical wires.
Amber stood up straight. The walls vibrated. The oil on canvas painting clashed on the floor and cracked. It rained tiny pieces of drywall as the ceiling shook. The lamp on the miniature table in the middle of the hallway flickered. When the darkness hugged her, her heart fought and pounded. The bulb lit and she shrugged. The fissures reappeared on the walls. The cracks thickened. Drywall white dust exploded and scattered in the hall. She coughed as drywall plaster powder penetrated her nostrils and slackened mouth.
The floor rumbled, and Amber stumbled against the wall. She gripped on the molding, which was at her chest level, but it snapped. She lost her balance and landed flat on her stomach, facing the vast hole in the wall. Hissing faded from the large hole. She raised her head slowly to take a gander at what loomed behind the walls. Amber aimed the torchlight into the hole: dented foundation beams, thick cobwebs, and patches of insulation. She lunged her hand into the hole, motioned her phone with the torchlight to her right, and knocked the phone against the wooden beam. She screamed in pain. The deafening drop of the phone onto the ground behind the wall thundered the house. The light in the hall flickered, and she shuddered. As the light blinked again, she stared through the hole and saw a nest of reptiles coiling. She moaned and her muscles grew tense. The fizzing irked her ears. Amber got up in a haste, attempted to dash to the bedroom, but her face fell: a cluster of snakes were crawling to the bed.
Amber had no choice but to leave. Blood dripped onto the cracked and dusty walls. Her bladder loosened. The world revolved a little too fast. She wished she had more time to reflect and act, but she had to dash to the tip of the hall—nervermind the gloom, to save herself. Smoke surged from the gloom, and she froze in her tracks. She sniffed. It smelled like burned metal. She looked over her shoulder. The cluster of serpents had gathered in the hallway, wall to wall, and they crawled toward her, approaching midway down the hall. Cold sweat raced down her forehead and she couldn’t think clearly for a moment. Her heart rate increased twofold. An intimidating, guttural and hollow baying traveled from the gloomy end of the hall. The smoke dispersed. The lamp died. Amber’s thoughts drowned into oblivion and the darkness embraced her frail body. A storm of hopeless scenarios pounding her brain. Hearing the fizzing growing in intensity gave her the creeps. She knew the dead lamp was close by, so she peered back, heard hissing, then tapped on the wall to guide herself to reach to the table lamp. Her clammy hands palmed a squared piece of porcelain. Amber glided her hand up to the bulb and jiggled it. The light came back to life, the snakes gaining ground slowly—they were only a few feet away from the table lamp.
A sudden brutal thunder clapped.
The ceiling crashed. Amber hunched over and covered her head with her blistered hands. Then both walls collapsed. Amber uncovered her head and her face filled with terror. A wave of white powder scattered. Her expanded eyes glittered and her mouth opened with disbelief as the house had no walls and no roof. She turned around and stared down at the bloody reptile carcasses caked with dust and debris.
Lightning flashed. Metal clashed against metal behind Amber. She bounced, spun, and faced the cloud of dust, and wondered if someone was dragging a heavy chain on the dusty floor. The coat of dust thickened. Terror filled her eyes. Amber screamed at the top of her lungs as she glared up and showed her palms to stop. The glossy steel snake, which was twenty times her size, with glowing red saucer eyes, curved its spine upward and stood still. With its foamy mouth open displaying its fangs of prey, it lunged its head forward. Blood squirted, and the beast silenced Amber’s scream.
A thick layer of smog spread throughout the town, blanketing the venerable buildings and century-old townhouses. Ted left the West Inverness Office after work. He jogged on Cedar Street, a narrow cobblestone street that snaked along the Swan Brook. Sweat lines rushed down his forehead as he crossed the intersection and encountered a mass of bent heads with eyes focused on fingers dancing on tiny screens. He passed the row of brownstone townhouses and stopped by the Sweet Tooth Shop to buy a box of mouth-watering chocolate truffles.
Heart aching and craving, his mind played rehearsal scenarios for his proposal act. After six months of dating, he was ready to pop the question. He had invited Deb over for a Mexican-themed dinner and paint night. As he crossed off his checklist on his mind, he wondered which playlist he’d play. Instrumental folklore? Mariachi? Metal? He was drawing close to his place.
The cellphone rang. When his eyes sparkled at the call display, a jolt of adrenaline rushed through his veins. “Hey!”
“How’s Mr. Handsome?”
“Just completing tonight’s prep. I got you your favorite Chardonnay.”
“Ted?” she asked, cracking.
He heard her clearing her throat. “I hate to blow this again…”
Deb had to work overtime; cover a workmate who was ill. Ted squeezed the phone with his firm fingers. He couldn’t believe it was happening again. His heart was on the verge of bursting.
“How about tomorrow?”
Ted gasped. “I prepared us shepherd’s pie. I don’t—”
Her laughter tickled his ears. “I thought you were sharpening your Mexican cuisine skills,” she said.
“I added diced tomatoes, taco seasoning, corn muffin, cheese and olives,” he said, using a dry tone.
“I set up the table to paint your father’s craft. I got us a special dessert. What do you say?”
He stared at the bottle of wine and chocolate box he was holding with a dazed expression.
He leaped. “What?”
“Please be careful with the sail ship kit. It’s a rare gem. Grandma gave it to my father, and it means a lot to him. He’ll be thrilled after we fix it and paint it.”
“I’m sure he will.”
“Love you.” The call ended.
Ted gazed at the lonely, lifeless maple tree standing across the street in the park. He drew close to his townhouse. A crow perched on the gargoyle ornamented on the ledge of the building and cawed.
He entered his kitchen and glanced at the table—at the effort and sweat he had poured in. Charcoal plates and bowls and spotless wine glasses sat on the glossy oak table.
He opened the fridge, a whiff of taco seasoning, and melted cheese tingled his nostrils. His eyes shone at the shepherd’s pie he had prepared. His stomach began teasing his senses. He flexed his hand to the pie, then froze. What if she comes tomorrow? After getting the cold shoulder from Deb, he wondered if someone else was in the picture? He resisted temptation. Instead grabbed a can of beer to drink his worries.
In the living room, a fancy paint brush kit and sketching pencils spread beside the two-feet wide sail ship kit on the slanted table, which was handmade with pallet wood. He grabbed the sail ship model with care, carefully palmed underneath the hull, hugged it and placed it on the shelf which was mounted on the wall near the upholstered love seat. He sat and sipped a can of cold brew while heavy rock guitar riffs roared from his phone. Ted moved the phone on the right armrest of the loveseat, just below the tomes lying on the top shelf and Deb’s grandfather’s relic resting on the shelf underneath. He leaned back and crashed on the couch—head close to the right armrest, near the wall. The pillow was behind his head and stared up at the ceiling. He felt like a lost soul at sea getting carried to the horizon by the maddening waves; drifting away from Deb. Ted’s eyes battled the fatigue he wore. His scattered thoughts drowned into oblivion and plunged in the darkness.
Ted surged and woke up. His phone was buzzing.
He lunged his head forward to the table, but his phone wasn’t there. He recalled he had placed it on the right armrest of the couch. When he turned around, his limped hand stretched to the phone, and he knocked on it. The phone slipped into the gap between the couch’s armrest and the wall and then thumped onto the ground with a powerful slap. He howled at the thought of seeing his new phone with gashes on the screen. He sprang to the couch’s end, pinched the frame of the couch with his firm fingers, and pushed it. The couch barely moved a foot. Ted figured there was sufficient space to slide his hand into the hole. He leaned forward, flexed his left hand through the opening and down, and stuck his shoulder on the couch as he tried to reach for his phone. Ted waved his hand in the dust underneath the couch and seized a solid rectangular object. Relieved, he plucked it with a tight grasp and hauled his arm up as he pulled himself up to stand straight. He tried to push the loveseat back to its place, but he elbowed both shelves, which were at his height level. The top shelf jerked. The books slipped and slammed the shelf underneath, onto the picture frame and the relic from the 19th century. Eyes widened, he gazed down at the outcome and opened his mouth in awe. The sail ship model kit laid shattered on the ground. He rubbed his temple and forehead with his clammy hands.
The light was blinking on his phone. It was a message alert. He hoped it wasn’t Deb. He moved the phone in slow motion while imagining it was Deb and him telling her what had happened to her grandparents’ relic. After berating himself, he hesitated to check his phone. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and prepared himself to tell her. He woke the phone from standby mode and there was a text message with a picture. The world stopped turning. He squinted his eyes and examined the image. It was an image of himself while asleep in his bedroom at night. Brows raised, he didn’t recognize the phone number and the country code. Questions battered. Who the hell took the picture? Deb? She playing games? Why? As he stared at the picture and the debris on the ground, Ted didn’t have the guts to call Deb. His mind reeled with infinite scenarios of Deb throwing a fit. Wondering when the picture was taken, he swiped swiftly downward to check the details. It said yesterday at 11:58 PM. He recalled he had hopped in bed after eleven. Also, he knew Deb was at work yesterday till 2 AM.
Eighteen-year-old Jack spent his life in Chester, New York until the day an armed man broke into his place and murdered his parents. Tormented by his guilt, he moves to New York City to find a job and escape his past. Under pressure, Jack signs a questionable lease with a married pair of landlords.
Just days later, the handyman of the building dies unexpectedly, and Jack is offered the job. It’s not long after accepting the position that his nightmare begins. Caught between the slumlord owners and mysterious beings that haunt the building, Jack struggles to maintain his sanity as the tenants die around him. Will he be next?
“Jack’s pace decreased as he drew close to a dead-end where a secluded and crumbling three-story brownstone apartment rested: the 1761 Williamsburg Housing Building. His shabby clothes matched the state of the dwelling.”