sumfag

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Oct 27th, 2020 (edited)
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  1. Oh No
  2.  
  3. by
  4. sum(fag)
  5.  
  6. The university’s health clinic’s waiting room was overflowing with young adults of various shapes and sizes wearing masks running the gambit from the standard disposable worn under the nose, to gauze thin neck gaiters, to homemade affairs that looked part quirky quilt, part hazmat suit. Far from maintaining a two meter distance, all the seats were packed, and most of the rest of the room was filled with awkwardly standing people, flicking through their phones in a bid to not have to make eye contact with anyone else.
  7.  
  8. Thanks to the number of students who needed a test to get the waiver that would allow them back to class, the wait time to see a nurse was stretching out in a curve trending more toward exponential than linear. David had already been loitering next to the counter holding the jar of lollipop like free condoms for so long that he no longer flinched whenever someone coughed or sneezed. Long enough for the buzz to be wearing off, and for the tightness in his shoulder and pain in his hand to return.
  9.  
  10. Unlike seemingly everyone else queued up, David wasn’t there to find out if he was sick. Rather, he was making a belated visit to find out just how badly he’d screwed himself up in a motorcycle accident. It had already been two weeks since he’d high sided on his bike, and things had been going well enough with his self-proscribed regimen of Michelob Ultra, vodka, and pain pills. He was pretty sure he hadn’t broken his shoulder, and the swelling had gone down, almost back to normal. Unfortunately his hand still hurt, and though he’d wrenched it back into its place with a sickening pop a few hours after the accident, his thumb still didn’t have its old range of movement, and certain bones seemed to be in different places compared to his non-injured hand. If it weren’t his note taking hand, he would have just kept on keeping on, but since it was, and it had been long enough for it to heal in his opinion, and it hadn’t, he figured he would go to the free clinic to see if they had anything to say about it.
  11.  
  12. He had just about convinced himself to leave and come back in a few months when the pandemic was hopefully over, when the heavy door leading to the back, where students had been called for all through the morning, never to be seen again, opened, and an older woman appeared, a heavyset impala who seemed tired. “Davidson?” She called out.
  13.  
  14. David perked up, along with about half a dozen other human guys spread throughout the room. The nurse glanced up, noticing the confusion. “David,” she clarified. That didn’t seem to help the matter. “David D. Davidson?” She tried again. David and the others continued to look at one another questioningly. “The D stands for Wolfgang?”
  15.  
  16. David smiled and raised his good hand. “Oh, that’s me.”
  17.  
  18. “Great, come on back, please,” She replied, and David liked to think that she gave him wide smile under her white cotton mask with a red cross as she held the door wide for him to pass through. After she let the door close behind him, she said “Follow me, this way.”
  19.  
  20. She led him down a nondescript hall, past a nurse’s station staffed by a pair of co-eds dressed in scrubs, a young lioness with sharp, angular features, her hair in a ponytail, and a short haired bear with a much softer outline and half lidded eyes that gave the impression she was moments away from hibernation. They paused their conversation to watch David walk by, their eyes lingering on the drug store bought hand brace he’d slapped on to hopefully hold his errant bones in place.
  21.  
  22. The older nurse, left David in a room that smelled of bleach, containing a flimsy examination table covered by a thin sheet a paper, a single chair, a rolling stool next to a counter with a sharps bucket, and a single laminated poster about getting vaccinated for HPV.
  23.  
  24. Settling into the chair, David pulled out his phone and browsed his usual sites until the impala nurse returned to quickly and efficiently take his vitals with a minimum of discussion. Then it was back to waiting for another eternity before there was a perfunctory knock on the door, and a short stoat wearing a stethoscope walked in without waiting for a response.
  25.  
  26. She stood just above eye level for David, while he was sitting down, and a third of her height seemed as if it was made up by her fluffy neck. She wore a white lab coat with a nameplate saying Richardson, and a standard white paper disposable mask. She came in with a force that belied her small stature and reached out to take his hand, before thinking better of it, as she introduced herself. “Hello, David, I’m Doctor Becky Richardson. What brings you in today?” With practiced ease she hooked the rolling stool with a foot and pulled it over next to David’s seat and settled down on it.
  27.  
  28. Feeling a bit embarrassed at relating his story of stupidity to an older woman, David hesitated for a moment before laughing a bit. “Well, I was kind of in a motorcycle accident a few weeks ago, and ever since, my thumb hasn’t been acting the same, so I was hoping you could take a look at it for me.”
  29.  
  30. “Oh my,” Dr. Richardson said, her eyes above the mask narrowing in concern. She reached out to his damaged hand, and David placed it in her dainty paws. As she unfastened the cheap brace he was wearing, she asked, “How exactly did that happen?”
  31.  
  32. Smiling sheepishly behind his mask, David said, “Well, I bought a motorcycle about a month ago, so I’m kind of new to riding. I was out with some friends, and we were having fun, until we got to this one hill. I kind of gunned it to catch up to them, but at the top of the hill, the road turned, and I kept going straight. At least until I hit the ditch and tumbled into a field. One minute I’m grabbing the clutch and the brake, and the next thing I remember, I’m lying on my back contemplating just how blue the sky was. My friends came back for me and helped me get the bike back home. I’m still working with the insurance company, but unfortunately it looks like they’re probably going to want to total it.”
  33.  
  34. “And what about you, did you just hurt your hand in the crash?” She asked while running her warm paws over his much larger hand, probing his wrist and the area around the base of his thumb, causing him to wince as a bone shifted in and out of position.
  35.  
  36. “Thankfully I was wearing all my gear at the time. You know, helmet, jacket, all that, so I didn’t have any head injuries. Just some scrapes, a lot of bruises. Kind of sprained my shoulder, and of course the thumb thing. Everything’s mostly healed except my hand though.”
  37.  
  38. “Mostly? Are you sure that you don’t want me to look at your shoulder too?”
  39.  
  40. David shrugged. “No, I’m not too worried about it. I’m pretty sure I didn’t break anything, and it only hurts when I lift something heavy, but it’s getting better every day. I’m even able to sleep on my side again.”
  41.  
  42. Dr. Richardson regarded David with concern in her dark black eyes and was silent for a moment. “Okay … Well, we still need to have some x-rays done of your hand to see what’s going on with it. Sit tight and I’ll see if our x-ray technician is in.”
  43.  
  44. She bounced out of her seat, throwing the brace she’d taken off David’s hand into the trash, and rushed out the door, closing it behind her. Once again, David was left alone for several long boring minutes. It had been years since he’d woken up as early as he had in order to make it to the clinic when it opened, in the hopes of beating the crowd, and the examination room, while stark, was warm. He was on the verge of nodding off when another light rap on the door rang out immediately before the door was opened without allowing any time for David to respond. This time it was a tall, svelte, dark furred canine. She might have been a wolf, but David didn’t want to leap to any stereotypical assumptions.
  45.  
  46. She was wearing a cloth mask with a smiley face on it, through which, in a gentle, lightly slavic accented voice said, “Hello, my name is ‘Kita, I do the x-rays here. Please come with me.”
  47.  
  48. David followed her back through the labyrinthine corridors of the office, past the nurses’ station, where the bear and lion from before had been joined by a younger, skinnier, Impala, who was dressed in a short shirt, skinny jeans, and low top sneakers. Unlike the older Impala, she appeared to still derive some joy from the world. She was leaning over the counter, but any conversation they were having was paused as all three watched David walk by. This time with greater interest than previously. The lioness shook her head slightly as if looking at a damn shame.
  49.  
  50. This wasn’t David’s first time in an x-ray examination room, so he didn’t need any prompting to sit down in the chair next to the large table and place his injured hand under the death cannon hanging from the ceiling. Nikita placed a lead lined blanket on his lap and turned his hand to her satisfaction before retreating behind a small partition on the far side of the room. The fluorescent lights overhead flickered for a few seconds.
  51.  
  52. A few moments later, Nikita called out in confusion, “Have you had any surgery on your hand?”
  53.  
  54. David frowned in thought. “No. I don’t remember anything like that.”
  55.  
  56. Nikita stalked back over and gently ran her finger over the fleshy part of his hand just before his index finger. “Here. Have you had some sort of surgery, or maybe an injury or something?”
  57.  
  58. Where she indicated was just above a small moon shaped scar that David could clearly remember came from years ago when he was holding a CO2 cartridge for his friend to shoot, when they’d been dicking around in his back yard with pellet guns. His friend’s aim had been less than stellar.
  59.  
  60. “I did get shot with a pellet gun around there, but that was like ten years ago.”
  61.  
  62. “Here, come, take a look,” Nikita said, gently holding David’s elbow to help him up. She led him over to the alcove she’d been in where he could see a skeletal hand projected on a screen, with a bright white object just below the index finger, perfectly shaped like an airgun pellet, with one side slightly flattened.
  63.  
  64. “Huh, I guess it’s still in there,” David said musingly.
  65.  
  66. Nikita looked at him askance.
  67.  
  68. “It … it doesn’t hurt? You never had anyone look at it, or take it out?”
  69.  
  70. David shrugged. “Oh, it hurt real bad at first, but I guess it moved around until I just didn’t feel it anymore after the scar healed.” He ran his thumb over his hand. “Huh, now that you mention it, I can feel it kind of rolling around in there. Weird. But it’s not really the problem I came in for …”
  71.  
  72. “Yes, yes.” Nikita said distractedly. “Let’s finish getting all the angles of your hand and have Dr. Richardson look at them. It’s just that metal, the x-ray always picks up the metal.”
  73.  
  74. She led David back over to the x-ray table, and they took a couple more x-rays of his hand in various positions before returning him back to the examination room that was starting to feel like a second home to him.
  75.  
  76. This time he did fall asleep in the less than comfortable chair and was startled awake by the quick rap of a knock and the immediate opening of the door to reveal the stoat with the white coat, Dr. Richardson. “Do you mind coming with me to look at something real quick?” She asked.
  77.  
  78. David reached up to surreptitiously wipe the drool away from the corner of his mouth, only to run into his mask, and just kind of spread it around. “Sure.”
  79.  
  80. He followed her into the hallway, past the omnipresent nurses’ station, where the bear nurse was bent over a computer, studiously typing away, while the lioness was flipping through several dense folders. Impala the Younger had disappeared, but there was a new face. A zebra coed with the white parts of her mane shaved away, wearing thick black mascara, black scrubs, some comfortable looking doc martins, and a facemask patterned after zebra stripes, but orientated ninety degrees to her natural pattern. She was handing the lioness a folder when her eyes met David’s, filled with open curiosity.
  81.  
  82. It occurred to David that the university’s nursing program might have a gender inequality issue. Then he mentally shrugged. Who was he to judge? As an IT student, the only time he ever saw any women in the technology building, was when they were using a computer in the lab. Though there was the running joke to avoid the dark corners and empty stairwells of the building. Some of the more eccentric anthro women liked to pick off the weakest of the nerds.
  83.  
  84. Just a few steps away from the nurse’s station, tucked into an alcove in the hallway that looked like it might of previously held a water fountain, was a shelf containing a thin, ancient desktop computer, connected to a monitor showing a very familiar spooky scary skeleton hand with an airgun pellet lodged in it.
  85.  
  86. “I was just wondering what this was exactly,” Dr. Richardson said as she pulled out a pen from her breast pocket to point out the metal object.
  87.  
  88. David reflected that for some reason it seemed like he felt kind of silly every time he had a conversation with Dr. Richardson. “Well, that’s a pellet from an airgun that’s been stuck in my hand for like ten years or something,” he explained as he used his good hand to rub the back of his neck.
  89.  
  90. “And were you aware it was stuck in your hand?”
  91.  
  92. David shook his head. “I remember when it happened, but I didn’t realize it was still there until like ten minutes ago when Nikita and I saw it on the x-ray. Pretty wild, right? But really I’m more concerned about my thumb right now.”
  93.  
  94. Dr. Richardson looked up at him levelly for a moment then shook her head with a sigh. “David, I’ve got some concerns. If we weren’t so incredibly busy …” She sighed again before turning back to the x-ray. “Well, none of your bones are obviously broken. I’ll send it out for an overnight reading by a specialist, but it does look like this bone back here behind your thumb might be out of place. Wearing an actual medical brace should help with that, and I’ll prescribe you some muscle relaxants and pain killers that should help you.”
  95.  
  96. “I’ve got that covered,” David said confidently. “I’ve been taking vodka, aspirin, and Tylenol, so that’s basically pain pills and liquid muscle relaxant already.”
  97.  
  98. “You’ve been taking aspirin and Tylenol together?” Dr. Richardson asked incredulously.
  99.  
  100. David hurried to reassure her. “Oh, I haven’t been double dosing or anything like that. It’s just that I throw all my pain pills in one big bottle. I only take two every couple of hours, if the pain’s bad enough. Sometimes it’s aspirin, sometimes Tylenol PM, sometimes ibuprofen, it’s like a box of chocolates, but pain pills.”
  101.  
  102. Dr. Richardson closed her eyes and let out a high-pitched sound that was honestly quite frightening for David. He had no idea how he was supposed to react, but thankfully she stopped after a couple of seconds and grabbed his shirt with one hand while gesticulating sharply with the other. “All that, everything you just said, stop that. Don’t ever do that again. Ever. You stupid, dumb, fool. Just … just see Tanya, get your hand wrapped up, promise me to get your prescription filled, and please, if your hand gets worse, come back here, or if it’s an emergency, go to the E.R. But stop all this,” She waved her hand around, searching for the words, “home remedy. Just stop it. When something bad happens, or something hurts, come in and have it looked at. Okay?”
  103.  
  104. Holding his hands up placatingly, David said, “Yeah, okay, sure. I promise, all right?”
  105.  
  106. With a final huff, and a no-nonsense stare into his eyes, Dr. Richardson let go of his shirt and returned to a social distance. “Good. I’m going to go write up my notes and send that x-ray out to be reviewed. It was nice to meet you, David, but please try and take better care of yourself.”
  107.  
  108. “Sure thing. It was nice to meet you too, Dr. Richardson, and thanks for looking at me.”
  109.  
  110. The short stoat nodded at him, and turned to walk back to her office, with only one last worried glance in David’s direction.
  111.  
  112. The zebra from earlier pushed off from the counter around the nurses’ station and pulled David by his uninjured hand back to the examination room. “You banged up your hand, huh?” She asked with a smoky but monotone voice.
  113.  
  114. “Yeah, motorcycle accident.”
  115.  
  116. “That sucks.” She guided him back to the chair as she settled on the rolling stool, a cylinder of gauze in her hoof. “You planning on riding again?”
  117.  
  118. David didn’t even need to think about his reply. “Yeah, once my hand heals up and the insurance company figures out whether they’ll fix my bike or buy me a new one.”
  119.  
  120. “Cool,” the zebra said. She pulled out a black pen and began drawing a few symbols on part of the gauze she’d unwound.
  121.  
  122. “What’s that?” David asked after watching her draw something that looked like it was from Fullmetal Alchemist.
  123.  
  124. She didn’t look up, or pause as she replied, “Something for protection.”
  125.  
  126. He could always use more protection, and it wasn’t like it was hurting anything. “Oh cool.”
  127.  
  128. After a few minutes she finished her drawings and began to tightly wrap the bandage around David’s hand, the symbols pressed over the base of his wrist. David hissed a bit in pain when his bones shifted as the bandages tightened, but he assumed that was them just going back to where they needed to be and sucked it up.
  129.  
  130. “There we go. Now try not to let that get too wet, and don’t take it off for at least a few days. Preferably a week. If it does come undone, just come back, and I’ll be more than happy to tie it for you again, David.”
  131.  
  132. “Cool, thanks …”
  133.  
  134. It was at that moment that David realized he had no idea what her name was, and so his s just trailed off until she was kind enough to fill in “Tanya, my name is Tanya,” for him.
  135.  
  136. “Sweet, thanks, Tanya.”
  137.  
  138. “’No prob, dude.’ Now, let’s get your prescription printed and get you checked out.”
  139.  
  140. She led him back to the nurses’ station, where after filling out some paperwork, and being handed a sheet of medications to be filled, which he balled up and shoved into his back pocket, he was directed to a heavy door in the back of the building. Pushing it open, he found himself on the boulevard between the Literature building and the Biology building. Flexing his bandaged hand a bit, and wincing at the new pain of his bones popping out and into place, David began walking toward the Engineering building, and the bus station beyond, appreciating the orange and red leaves that were swaying and dancing in the slightly cool breeze.
  141.  
  142. It had been a while since he’d left his apartment. Even before the coof had hit, he’d been able to get all online classes, so he’d woken up whenever he wanted and pretty much did whatever he wanted, when he wanted, only logging in to rush and bang out assignments a few hours before they were due.
  143.  
  144. Compared to how crowded the clinic had been, campus, and the bus back to his apartment were surprisingly sparse. Though it took over half an hour for the bus to make it to his run-down neighborhood, he hadn’t had to interact with anyone else. He could have had an entire row of seats all to himself, if he hadn’t decided that simply leaning against one of the bars would probably be more hygienic.
  145.  
  146. The apartment complex he lived in was one of the more popular ones for transient students. It was huge, cheap, and just past comfortable walking distance from campus. A fact that students only realized a few months after they moved in, around the same time that the lackadaisical maintenance, shoddy construction, and ambivalence of the owners, who lived on the other side of the country, became apparent. If a resident fulfilled their lease before moving out, they were considered one of the old timers by most. Only a few, such as David, and the shirtless guy who did nothing but sit on his balcony and drink all day while scowling at the world, were masochistic enough to have lived there long enough that they were seen as permanent fixtures.
  147.  
  148. David hopped off the bus and waved to shirtless guy, who didn’t break his thousand-yard stare to acknowledge David’s existence, as he lifted a paper bag wrapped bottle of mad dog to his lips. David didn’t let it get to him. Shirtless guy had never responded to him before, so why would he start now?
  149.  
  150. Ever since the coof had hit, all the residents who could leave had, so the massive parking lots the complex was built around were empty as David walked through them, aiming for his own home away from home tucked away in one of the rearmost buildings. Hundreds of silent apartments watched his progress with their dark, empty windows.
  151.  
  152. Climbing the steps to his domicile, David rattled the door open and promptly tossed the prescription in some corner of the living room, and his mask towards the coffee table that had never held coffee, but was overflowing with old pizza boxes, some of which still held stale slices that constituted his emergency food supply. He fished out a couple of pills from the pain pill bottle, and chased them with a shot of vodka before wincing at the aftertaste. He quickly made himself a screwdriver with questionably expired Sunny Delight. Unfortunately, he’d already drunk his way through his normal alcohol reserves, and had even gone through the emergency vodka. All that was left was the cheap bulk vodka usually reserved for hunch punch. He needed to make a run to the liquor store, but that was something future David could handle.
  153.  
  154. In the meantime he turned on the TV, which was already on Nick, and settled onto the couch that had been stained and warped before he’d found it next to the dumpster, and mindlessly watched the flashing colors of Spongebob as his medication kicked in. At some point, after a few more mouth curdling shots of vodka, David felt tired, and like he needed to pee. Deciding to take care of the latter first, and the former second, he lurched up and ascended the spiral staircase to the second floor that was wrapped with Christmas lights. Half of which actually worked.
  155.  
  156. There was a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor, but they belonged to his erstwhile roommate. A roommate he had spoken to only a few times, and who he hadn’t seen in a few months. David assumed that he’d packed up and went home when things first began going crazy. All he really knew was that he hadn’t seen hide nor hair of the guy, and the door had been locked, all year.
  157.  
  158. Upstairs, David waded through the layer of pizza boxes, taco wrappers, dirty clothes, empty bottles, hopefully empty solo cups, and various other detritus that acted as a patina to his carpet on the way to his bathroom. Taking care of his business, he waded over to his bed, and feeling overly hot, managed to shuck off his shirt before falling onto it. Though he was lying still, it felt as if the room was spinning as he drifted off to sleep.
  159.  
  160. Sometime in the early hours of the morning, something roused David from his drunken slumber. It took him a few seconds of bleary consciousness, before he realized that it was bone achingly cold in his room. The nights were becoming colder, but the days were still rather warm, so he hadn’t adjusted the thermostat for winter yet. Burrowing under his blankets, David shivered as he waited for his body heat to do its thing. In the meantime, he listened to the wind pass through the trees outside, causing the branches to tap against the glass of the room’s skylights rhythmically. It almost sounded like the wind was saying “Daaaavvvviiiiiiieeeee” in a low, breathless, sing-song voice. Soon enough his blankets warmed up enough that he was able to fall asleep again, and this time he managed to lose consciousness all the way until an errant beam of light hit his eyes. Which, judging by the sun’s position in the unobstructed skylight overhead, meant it was somewhere between midmorning and noon. A bit early for David, but getting up early every once in a while was good for you, right?
  161.  
  162. Wincing at his cotton mouth, David drank from one of the half-filled water bottles on his nightstand that probably hadn’t been sitting out too long. He threw on a shirt and headed downstairs.
  163.  
  164. The kitchen cupboards were rather bare. He did have all the important condiments, such as ketchup, mustard, soy sauce, cock sauce, and a can of spam, but little else besides that. In contrast, the counter tops were rather full of garbage from take outs and deliveries of yore. The kitchen sink was full of dishes that had been soaking for at least a month. When he finally mustered up enough strength to overcome the threatening odor that was emanating from them, he was sure that whatever residue that had been burned on to them would slide right off. His gaze moved from the dishes in the sink to the view from the window just above. There was a rolling field behind the apartment, leading to the distant tree line, where the foliage had turned a riot of colors ranging from red, to orange, to amber, to brown. Fall was definitely David’s favorite time of year.
  165.  
  166. Continuing on with his search for sustenance, David opened the fridge. Ignoring the mystery pot, it looked like the only thing with calories was the questionable Sunny D, which, much like trees or ice cores, bore rings around the container, denoting the level the liquid within had previously been at. He would be more than happy to settle for the beverage as breakfast, but he’d run out of vodka to mix with it, not to mention rum, gin, or Everclear. Self-medication was proving to be an expensive habit.
  167.  
  168. He’d just begun to check the bus schedule on his phone in order to plan an expedition to the liquor and grocery stores, when there came a rapping on his apartment door. David couldn’t recall making an order through grubhub, door dash, or even uber eats, so it was with some perplexity that he walked over and opened the door.
  169.  
  170. Standing there, positively beaming through her white cotton mask, was a tall Pomeranian, or some other type of dog that was fluffy, extraordinarily fluffy. Her fur was golden in color, and seemed barely contained by the soft beige sweater and white capri pants she was wearing. Especially her rather generous bosom. Her eyes were a gentle sky blue and were focused down on David, since she stood a few inches taller than him in her slip on vans.
  171.  
  172. “Hello,” she said in a very chipper manner, one hand raised in a wave. “I’m Becky, your new downstairs neighbor! I hope I didn’t bother you yesterday when I was moving in.”
  173.  
  174. “Uh, hey, I’m David,” David intelligently replied. “No, I didn’t notice at all to be honest. Hopefully I didn’t keep you up with my television. I usually keep late hours, and I know how thin the walls here are. If I knew that someone had moved in below me, I would have toned it down.”
  175.  
  176. Becky rolled her head with a laugh. “Oh, don’t worry about that at all, David. You didn’t bother me in the slightest. I just thought that since I moved in, I’d go ahead and introduce myself to the new neighbors. It’s important to get started on the right foot, don’t you think?”
  177.  
  178. A bit flummoxed by the whole encounter, David replied, “Uh, yeah. That’s real nice of you.” Should he be making a plate of cookies, or a Jello mold for her or something? The decades of generational learning hadn’t prepared him for the anachronism standing before him.
  179.  
  180. “Well, I just wanted to stop by and say hello,” Becky said. “And invite you to my move in party.” She looked past David and commented, “Though, it looks like you’ve just thrown a party of your own. Do you need any help cleaning all of that up?”
  181.  
  182. David glanced back at the mess behind him and closed the door against him to try and block her sight of his unsightly mess. “No, I think I’ve got it. Thanks though. It was nice to meet you. Let me know if you have any questions about the complex, like where the dumpsters are. I know that the apartment manager isn’t the most welcoming guy.”
  183.  
  184. “Thanks, David, I’ll do that. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you a lot as I settle in. It was nice to meet you,” she said with a wave as she turned and began descending the stairs to the first floor.
  185.  
  186. David wiggled his fingers in a wave and smiled at her retreating form before closing the door and thinking to himself how odd and yet how pleasant the encounter had been. Becky had been wearing some sort of perfume, or body wash, that still surrounded him and smelled sweet and familiar somehow. With a sigh, David took in the mess that was his apartment and added cleaning supplies to his mental list of necessities that he needed to purchase. Whether he’d actually use them was still to be seen.
  187.  
  188. He returned to his room and wrapped his hand in a plastic bag, then took a shower. While there were mounds of clothes of questionable cleanliness spread throughout his room, for some reason he seemed to cycle through just a few outfits. Picking up the next one in line from the short pile of clean clothes, David dressed himself. Completing the sub-quests of finding his wallet, keys, phone, mask, and shoes, which were hidden throughout the apartment, David headed out for the bus stop.
  189.  
  190. It only took around half an hour of waiting around to die for the bus to show up, and after an uneventful twenty-minute ride, David found himself at the nearest supercenter. With a sigh, he steeled himself and walked inside. For some reason, any time he had to visit the ultimate expression of capitalism, it felt like a soul-sucking experience that devoured an innumerable number of hours. This trip was no different. Though for some reason it took him nearly three hours to get in and out, with at least half of that stuck in line to check out, David was surprised the sun was still out when he left the store with a fistful of plastic bags. Making a side trip to the conveniently located liquor store next door, David compromised due to the weight he was already carrying, and settled on buying just a gallon of vodka. And a tiny little 250 ml bottle of rum.
  191.  
  192. Another hour of waiting and riding, found David hauling his loot back through the canyon of empty apartments on the way to his home. Walking up the stairs to his front door, he glanced through the first floor’s Venetian blinds and saw Becky working on something while sitting on her couch. Unpacking, David supposed.
  193.  
  194. He set his shopping down on a mostly open space on the kitchen counter, and poured himself a drink. Holding the bags had done a number on his thumb. As he sipped at his screwdriver, he contemplated the still full shopping bags and the filthy apartment surrounding him. He sighed. He knew himself well enough to know that if he put off cleaning up, then it would probably be at least another month until he dredged up enough motivation again to start working on things.
  195.  
  196. So David unpacked his shopping, and opening up one of the newly purchased black trash bags with a snap, began shoving empty pizza boxes into its depths. A few mind numbing hours later and the worst of the garbage was concentrated in a heap of black trash bags stacked next to the front door, threatening to crash in an avalanche of refuse at any moment. The dish washer he’d forgotten he had was running, as was the clothes washing machine, which was almost invisible behind the mound of funky laundry he’d gathered. The floors were still covered with crumbs, lint, and some dust, but David didn’t own a vacuum. Maybe one of his friends did, and they’d let him borrow it.
  197.  
  198. He opened his front door, the first of several loads of trash bags destined for the dumpster in his hands, and found that the day was nearly over. The sun had just disappeared beyond the trees in the distance and the sky was died in reds, oranges, and navy blue. Carrying his clinking cargo, careful not to let it touch him, lest something ooze out and stain his clothes, David made the trip across the complex to where the nearly empty garbage dumpster was located. He tossed the first load over the side and heard it clatter against the metal.
  199.  
  200. A voice from behind him caused David to jump.
  201.  
  202. “Howdy, neighbor.” Startled, David spun around and found Becky standing a short distance away. She was smiling down at him, one hand raised in a little wave. “I saw you passing by, and I decided to stalk you,” she said with a grin, her sharp teeth in a wolfish grin.
  203.  
  204. Sighing in relief, David smiled back. “Hey, Becky, I was just tossing some garbage out.”
  205.  
  206. Her eyes flicked down to his hand, and noticing the wrapping around it, she asked with concern, “Oh no, did you hurt your hand?”
  207.  
  208. David laughed sheepishly. “Yeah, motorcycle accident. It’s not hurting as much as it was, but it’s still bothering me from time to time.”
  209.  
  210. “That sounds unpleasant. Do you need help with taking out the trash?”
  211.  
  212. Impulsively, David was going to answer no, that he had it, but a dull throb ran through his hand, and a stiff breeze kicked up, emphasizing the fact that the day’s warmth was quickly fading with the coming night. “Sure, thanks, that’d be a huge help.”
  213.  
  214. They walked back to his apartment, chatting along the way. She apparently worked for some government agency, and had just relocated to the area. Most of the discussion was Becky nodding along as David talked about the town, what there was to do, what there was to see. Somehow he found himself explaining how he’d ended up at that particular university, the friends he had, and his love life, or lack thereof. Thankfully, they reached his apartment before he could go into too great a depth, but it was kind of odd. Usually he never opened up so much with someone so quickly.
  215.  
  216. Once she stepped inside David’s apartment, Becky took an appreciative look around, and immediately noticing mount garbage, happily said, “I guess I’ll just take care of this then. I’m worried about your hand, so why don’t you stay here and rest for a bit.”
  217.  
  218. David was going to argue, but swallowed his words when she grabbed two fistfuls of garbage bags, and picked up the entire pile. Impressed, David could only watch as she maneuvered out of the door and down the stairs. Figuring it would be polite to pay her back for the help, David decided he’d at least offer her dinner. Not that he had any ingredients to make anything, but he did have a menu from every restaurant that delivered in town. Not sure what she’d be in the mood for, he retrieved a sample of menus from the better restaurants and prepared them for Becky’s perusal. He took a moment to look around and appreciate how much larger the apartment was when it wasn’t overflowing with garbage.
  219.  
  220. Noticing that a load of laundry was finished, he pulled the warm clothes from the drier and transferred the wet clothes from one machine to the other. He was in the midst of folding his clothes, as best he was able, when Becky returned. “I think you filled up the dumpster, David. Hopefully they come and empty it soon.”
  221.  
  222. David laughed at what he assumed was her hyperbole. “Thanks for helping me out with that, Becky. If you want to wash your hands, unfortunately I’ve just got the dish soap. Hope that’s okay.”
  223.  
  224. Becky grinned. “That’s fine.”
  225.  
  226. She squeezed past the laundry closet David was standing in front of and ducked into the cramped kitchen to wash her hands. David continued to fold laundry as he asked over his shoulder, “Are you hungry? I was thinking of ordering something for dinner to pay you back for the help.”
  227.  
  228. “Sure, that sounds good. But, don’t you think we should finish cleaning up before that?”
  229.  
  230. David looked around the now spartan apartment in confusion. “We’re not done?”
  231.  
  232. Becky looked upon him with pitying amusement. “Not really. I mean, if you really want to clean this place up. This place needs at least a dusting, and a good vacuuming.”
  233.  
  234. “Hmm, I don’t have a duster, or vacuum,” David mused
  235.  
  236. Becky rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry, I’ve unpacked mine. Let me go get them and we can work on finishing this place up. Why don’t you order something for us while I’m gone, so it’ll be here when we’re finished?”
  237.  
  238. “Sure, what sounds good?”
  239.  
  240. “How about Chinese? Beef and broccoli, and some egg foo young for me, please,” Becky called out as she strode past David and toward the front door. “Really I’m fine with anything though. I don’t want to clean out your bank account. I know how strapped for cash you college kids are.”
  241.  
  242. David acted offended. “I’ll have you know that I live a life of deprivation out of choice, not necessity.”
  243.  
  244. With a smile that revealed her sharp canines again, Becky replied, “In that case, I’d also like the appetizers. All of them. Back in a sec.”
  245.  
  246. She disappeared through the door and after he finished transforming the ball of dry laundry into a somewhat more organized pile, David carried his clothes upstairs and dumped it into a new pile in the closet. He then called his favorite restaurant and placed an order. By the time he was done, Becky was coming back through the front door, a vacuum in one hand, a pile of swifters and other cleaning supplies in the other.
  247.  
  248. David went to help her, but she held the cleaning items over his head and said, “Nuh uh, David. You’re convalescing. Leave the rest of the cleaning to me.”
  249.  
  250. He hopped up to grab the supplies, and she jerked them just out of his reach. With an awkward smile, David said, “My hand’s hurting. It’s not like I have a broken arm or something. Besides, you’re my guest, it’d be weird to make you do all the work while I sit around and relax.”
  251.  
  252. Becky contemplated him for a moment before smiling. “I suppose you’re right. Here, you vacuum, I’ll dust. How does that sound?”
  253.  
  254. She handed David the vacuum, and he nearly dropped it from the unexpected weight. Refusing to look in Becky’s direction to see her likely smug expression, he plugged it into the nearest receptacle and studied its controls for a few moments, trying to figure out what all the other buttons and levers aside from the on/off were for. Meanwhile, Becky went to work. She started spraying down the kitchen counters with cleaner and wiping them off.
  255.  
  256. They continued on like that for a bit, Becky cleaning all the flat surfaces, David, after he eventually figured out how to turn it on, slowly vacuuming the carpet. It was slow going on his part, because it sounded like he was vacuuming up a tray of BB’s every time he pushed the vacuum forward. Hoping not to burn out the motor, he took it slow, and noticed that as he passed, the color of the carpet changed.
  257.  
  258. Eventually he’d chased the last of the dusty tumbleweeds to their stronghold, the space under the stairs to his bedroom, and had vanquished all the dirt on the first floor. He turned the vacuum off and looked around, wondering where Becky had gone to, when she descended the stairs with a small trash bag. “I finished your room, David. If you hand me the vacuum, I can take it upstairs for you.”
  259.  
  260. His masculine pride already in tatters, David simply unplugged the vacuum from the wall and handed it to her. She disappeared back upstairs with the machine, and just as David was about to follow her, there was a knock on the front door. It was the usual delivery guy bearing a very large plastic bag. By the time David had signed the receipt, and plopped the bags on the freshly cleaned counter, the sound of the vacuum running upstairs could be heard.
  261.  
  262. Deciding that he didn’t feel like getting into another disagreement with Becky, especially since she’d already begun the task, David retrieved a couple of plates from the cabinet where dishes were supposed to be stored, and began to serve dinner.
  263.  
  264. While it had taken him a considerable time to vacuum the living area, Becky finished the bedroom in a matter of minutes. She clambered down the stairs, the infernal machine in tow. Seeing the plated food, she smiled and said, “Perfect timing.” She set the vacuum by the front door as David brought the food over to the coffee table in front of the TV.
  265.  
  266. Queuing up the streaming service du jour, David handed the remote to Becky since she was his guest and all. They settled onto either end of the couch that was still beat up and stained, even post cleaning. She selected an 80’s slasher movie and they enjoyed the terrible special effects and the varied means of killing all the teenagers who engaged in premarital sex, as they feasted on cheap take out.
  267.  
  268. Maybe due to the way the couch slumped, David found that they’d slid closer to one another. Close enough where he could feel the heat radiating from Becky. As she leaned forward to snatch another egg roll, her arm brushed David’s, and he couldn’t help but breathe in her scent. It was lavender, with a hint of not unpleasant body odor, probably from all the heavy lifting he’d made her do, and a faint undercurrent of something like freshly turned earth. Figuring he was a bit too close for comfort, David surreptitiously moved further away, and tried to keep some distance between them while they finished the movie.
  269.  
  270. Afterwards, David gathered together the used plates and refuse from dinner while Becky stretched with a satisfied groan. “It’s been years since I saw that one,” she observed.
  271.  
  272. “They definitely don’t make them like that anymore,” David said as he tossed some garbage into the trashcan, and then set their plates in the sink. In doing so, he glanced out the tiny window placed just above it.
  273.  
  274. The sun had set, and the field between the apartment and the distant woods was a sea of shadows, rolling in the night breeze. But there was a figure out there. A shadow darker than the others, made small by the distance, standing still, staring in his direction. David couldn’t possibly tell if that was actually the case, he just felt it intuitively. Unlike the branches of the trees on the horizon, or the long grass surrounding it, this shadow wasn’t affected by the wind at all. It was a spot of stillness in an otherwise normal scene. The deathlike serenity is what had caught his eye.
  275.  
  276. A plate slipped from David’s hand, and he reflexively looked down, then immediately looked back out the window, but he wasn’t able to pick out the particular shadow he’d seen before.
  277.  
  278. “Well, it’s getting late, I guess I’d better be going,” Becky said from behind him.
  279.  
  280. “Yeah,” David said absently, before coming back to himself. He turned around, pushing what he’d seen from his mind. “I mean, thanks, for all your help. I’m glad you were here, Becky.”
  281.  
  282. She gave him a soft, sincere smile. “I’m glad I was here too, David. I had fun. Especially when I was going through your underwear drawer. We should do it again sometime.” She opened the front door and picked up the vacuum.
  283.  
  284. David rolled his eyes as he walked over toward her. “Yeah, sounds like a plan. Maybe next time I won’t force you to clean my filthy apartment.”
  285.  
  286. “Aw, but it’s not as satisfying, cleaning an already clean apartment.”
  287.  
  288. David laughed. “Night, Becky.”
  289.  
  290. “Night, David,” Becky said with a little wave as she descended the stairs.
  291.  
  292. He closed the door and went through the living room, flicking off the lights. Climbing the stairs, he once again marveled at just how much space there was in his room now that it wasn’t full of garbage. A quick shower and oral hygiene routine later, and he fell into his bed, illuminated by the glow of the LEDs from the various charging devices and chargers scattered throughout the room. It was far too early for his normal bed time, but he was still feeling tired from having to wake up so early the day before to visit the clinic, combined with all the physical and mental labor he’d endured. Hugging his pillow, he began browsing the usual sites on his phone, and at some point, his eyes just fell shut and his screen went dark for one last time.
  293.  
  294. Several hours later, as the waning moon poured softly broken light through the skylights above, David fuzzily returned to consciousness. He was laying on his side, wondering what it was that woke him, when he became aware of a sound. It was a rhythmical squeak, too loud to be coming from another room, too quiet to be coming from around his bed. After a few moments thinking about it, David identified the sound as the chain on the light in his closet. It must be swinging in the breeze from the A/C, though that didn’t feel like the correct answer, since the chain was moving quite forcefully.
  295.  
  296. Abruptly it stopped. Not with the gradual slowing of a pendulum, but as if it had been caught at the apogee of it’s arc. David waited a few seconds for it to resume, but then mentally shrugged to himself. It must have been swinging so wildly that it had become caught on something in there.
  297.  
  298. The way he was laying, he was facing the closet, and idly watched it as he listened to the darkness. His eyes were growing heavy and he was on the verge of sleeping again, when the closet’s door swung open. It did so slowly, noiselessly. David wouldn’t even have noticed its motion, if its white surface didn’t reflect the white moonlight as it did so. It opened slowly, as if pushed near the hinge. Maybe it was the A/C again.
  299.  
  300. Revealed by the open door was a solid rectangle of darkness. It was an opaque blackness that both defied and taunted David. It seemed to say to him, “All you need to do is shine a light my way, and you’ll be able to see everything, but I know you’re too much of a coward.”
  301.  
  302. He laid there for who knows how long, staring into the darkness. But nothing happened.
  303.  
  304. Eventually David chalked up the uneasy feelings he was feeling to the horror movie he’d watched earlier, and rolled over to go to sleep.
  305.  
  306. The next thing he knew, sunlight poked his eye, invading the maze he’d made with the comforter over his head. With a yawn he sat up in bed and unlocked his phone to see what he’d missed while asleep. Vaguely remembering what had happened the night before, he glanced toward the closet and saw the door was firmly closed.
  307.  
  308. Feeling a vague sense of unease, David reached for a new shirt and an old pair of pants, but his grasping hand came up empty, reminding him that he’d cleaned up yesterday, and all his clothes were now stacked in more or less neat piles in the closet. With a derisive chuckle at his own childishness, he slid out of bed and padded over to the closet.
  309.  
  310. Pausing for a moment, just as his hand was about to grasp the knob, David hesitated long enough to take a bracing breath, then he grabbed it firmly and pulled the door forcibly wide open. Inside, everything was just as he’d left it. Piles of clothes on the floor, bare hangers dangling from the wire shelves, a light bulb suspended from the ceiling with a beaded metal chain hanging from its side. There was a single A/C vent in the ceiling at the far end of the closet, and from where David stood, it was obvious that its louvers were fully closed. Dismissing what had happened the previous night as some sort of alcohol fueled dream, David gathered some clothes, tossing them on as he headed downstairs to find something for breakfast.
  311.  
  312. He’d purchased some eggs, cheese, and sauerkraut to make an omelet, and while, like most things in life, it didn’t turn out exactly how he’d envisioned it going, the scrambled eggs were still good, though they didn’t pair all that well with his morning pills and screwdriver chaser. He was just about to leave the pan and dishes, alongside the plates from last night, in the sink to soak, when he thought about the possibility of Becky coming over again. Reluctantly, he rinsed everything off and then loaded them into the dishwasher. As he was doing so, he glanced occasionally through the window above the sink.
  313.  
  314. In the daylight, the field of green, slightly overgrown grass wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Coupled with the vibrant blue, cloudless sky, the gentle breeze which caused the plants to sway, and the backdrop of brilliantly colored it foliage, it was actually quite picturesque. Even after he was finished with the dishes, he stared out of the window as he sipped his drink. That’s when he noticed something odd along the forest’s treeline.
  315.  
  316. It was hard to tell what it was due to the distance, but it looked like a pale white face, though there was something off about it. For one thing, it seemed quite narrow, and the black smudge that might be eyes were rather high on it, instinctively causing David to think it was an anthro of some sort. The other weird thing about it was that it was so far off the ground. Based off the trees and undergrowth around it, the face must have been floating ten feet in the air. It was probably an owl, or some other bird, and his pareidolia was just kicking in.
  317.  
  318. David’s musings were cut short by the faint sound of a trashcan full of mildly upset wasps. It was the familiar sound of his friend Stanley’s ‘performance’ muffler. Finishing off his drink and setting the cup on the counter in anticipation of the next one he’d pour, David ambled over to the front door and watched as his friend pulled into the parking lot.
  319.  
  320. Stanley was the typical rich kid who’d embraced bohemianism once he’d found collegiate freedom. He’d spent a small fortune to appear as if he were on the cusp of homelessness, knew every weed dealer in town, and had a reverential respect for anyone who played the guitar, since he aspired to play himself some day. The motorcycle he was riding looked like, and for the most part was, a hodgepodge of parts held together by heat wrap and duct tape, but it had begun life as a mid eighties BMW.
  321.  
  322. “Stan the man, how goes it?” David asked as Stanley took off the eastern European military surplus helmet he used and tossed it onto the bike.
  323.  
  324. Stanley pushed his long hair out of his face as he rapidly mounted the stairs to David’s apartment, loudly exclaiming, “I’ve had an epiphany, D! Where do you keep the gin?”
  325.  
  326. David let him brush past him and into the apartment, wincing a bit at the wave of stale body odor. He closed the door and said, “Sorry man, just have some vodka, and a bit of rum. What’s the epiphany? Finally realize you should have been a computer engineer instead of a computer scientist?”
  327.  
  328. “No,” Stanley replied as he poured a large helping of vodka from the plastic jug into a solo cup. “I’d actually have to try if I did that. No, what I realized last night, while I was drawing inspiration from a collection of trance remixes of witch house covers of classic grunge songs -”
  329.  
  330. “While you were blazed off your ass,” David added.
  331.  
  332. “While I was blazed out of my fucking skull!” Stanley took a large gulp from his cup. “That’s when I realized the truth. This virus man, everyone’s been going on about how it’s the end of the world, and how the economy is collapsing, wall street’s collapsing, main street’s collapsing, everything is collapsing. And I realized that’s not a bad thing. It’s like Picasso said, every act of creation begins first as destruction. This whole thing has been a wake up call, an opportunity. Fuck the old world man, that shit sucked. Wake up and go to school for twelve years, then another four years of college. Get a job, work at it for forty years, then retire and hope you have enough money saved up to keep surviving until your prostate or whatever blows up and kills you. Fuck all that.” He continued downing vodka like it was water. “This virus is our chance to break away from all of that bullshit. We’re the digital generation baby, we don’t have to be here, doing this, we can be doing anything from anywhere.”
  333.  
  334. David smiled indulgently. “Okay, such as?”
  335.  
  336. “Anything, man. Something better than hanging around here waiting to die.” Stanley leaned across the counter conspiratorially and lowered his voice. “I realized last night, I’m free. You’re free, everyone’s free. Just no one realizes it, man. But I finally do. I get it now. So I’m going to go and do it, and fuck anyone or anything that gets in my way.”
  337.  
  338. “Do what?”
  339.  
  340. Stanley's face stretched into a huge grin. “That’s just it man, I don’t know, but it will be something. I was on my way to the airport to find the first plane heading overseas, when I realized I was passing by your apartment, and I should probably tell you about the truth before I’m gone. After this, I’m going to just keep on going, all the way man, until I get to where I need to be, and realize what I need to be doing.”
  341.  
  342. David laughed disbelievingly. “You do know that most places have travel embargoes in place. Especially for travelers from here.”
  343.  
  344. With a shake of his head, Stanley replied, “Where I’m going, embargoes don’t exist. And even if someone does try to stop me, I won’t let them because I finally realized, I’m free. Now no one can touch me. It’d be like stopping the ocean. I’m fucking inevitable, man.” His face wrinkled in sorrow, and he appeared troubled. “But, I know that you can’t go with me. You haven’t been where I have, learned what I have, so you can’t walk the same path as I do. But maybe someday we’ll meet again, on the flipside.”
  345.  
  346. “Sure man, we’ll catch each other on the flipside,” David said, already imagining the call he’d be getting at two in the morning in a week or two from a chagrined Stanley who needed someone to drive ten hours to pay bail.
  347.  
  348. Stanley pounded the counter with both his hands and then thrust one out toward David to shake. David glanced at it for a moment before taking it. They exchanged a hearty shake. “It has been an honor, sir,” Stanley said with gravitas. Then, in a much more jocular tone, “Well, time for me to hit the ol’ dusty trail. I’ll let you know when I get to where I’m going.”
  349.  
  350. Nonplussed, David said, “Yeah, see you.”
  351.  
  352. Stanley strode across the room and out the door as if he were running for his life. He skipped down the stairs, and tossed his helmet on without bothering to secure its strap. David followed him out part of the way and stood on the balcony. Stanley jumped on his bike, started it, and gave David one final wave before riding off into the mid-morning in a cloud of blue smoke.
  353.  
  354. “Friend of yours?” A low voice asked from below and behind David, causing him to jump.
  355.  
  356. He whirled around to find Becky standing in the shade of the balcony. She was wearing a black sweater and black jeans. Her face was obscured by shadow, but her eyes glinted coldly in the morning light. “Yeah. His name’s Stanley. We’ve been friends since high school.”
  357.  
  358. “Oh? Was he one of the ones with you when you hurt your hand in the accident?”
  359.  
  360. David frowned slightly. He didn’t recall telling Becky how he’d injured his hand, but then again, maybe he’d mentioned it at some point yesterday in passing. “No, that was my other friend, Dan.”
  361.  
  362. With a flat voice, Becky said, “I see, Daniel...” She stepped into the sunlight and gave David a warm smile. “Well, anyway, how are you doing today, David?”
  363.  
  364. With a shrug, David replied, “Just another day in paradise. How about you? Still settling in?”
  365.  
  366. “Just about finished. Though I just remembered this morning that I need to run out and take care of a few things. Do you have any exciting plans for today?”
  367.  
  368. David took about a picosecond to think over his schedule. “Oh, just the normal, do a bit of studying, finish up some course work, prepare for the next class.” By which he meant playing video games until his ass was sore then glancing at his course calendar to see if there was anything due that he needed to bang out at the last minute.
  369.  
  370. “Well, maybe if you have some free time after all that studying, I could come over again and we could watch another movie,” Becky said, laying her large hand over his on the stair’s railing.
  371.  
  372. Staring down at her warm hand, feeling flustered, David replied, “Y-You too. I mean, if you have free time later, feel free to come on up. I should be around. I’m not going anywhere.”
  373.  
  374. Becky smiled, her eyes narrowed in satisfaction. “That sounds nice, David. I guess I should get ready to go then, so I don’t keep you waiting later.”
  375.  
  376. “Sounds good, I mean, great,” David said stupidly, giving her a thumbs up, which he immediately regretted as his thumb tried to pop out of its socket. Her smile turning into a smirk, Becky let his hand go and walked back towards her apartment. She turned around at the door and gave David a little wave that he returned, a bit gobsmacked at the unexpected attention. He was about 75% sure that Becky was sending him signals that she was romantically interested in him, which would be cool. Really cool.
  377.  
  378. Tripping back upstairs, David plopped down on his couch and thought about how a fluffy, curvaceous woman such as Becky would feel pressed against him as he started up his console. He wasn’t really paying attention to the game he was playing, his mind occupied by what his and Becky’s kids would look like, and how warm and soft she’d feel under his hands. At least he wasn’t paying all that much attention until someone who sounded like their balls had yet to drop called him a scrubby faggot. Then David gave his full, undivided attention to the game and to teabagging the offender until he rage quit. Afterwards, David flipped between fps and moba games as his fancy took him, with the occasional break to take a couple more pills whenever the pain from exercising his thumb got to him.
  379.  
  380. Much later, from the position of the sunlight coming through the blinds, it was sometime around mid-afternoon, and David was taking it easy, sitting in his lane, waiting for a push from the opposing team, when he heard something odd.
  381.  
  382. The couch he was sitting on was situated against the wall shared by the empty bedroom of his former room mate, and without warning, he could hear a faint scratching sound coming from just behind his head. He wasn’t sure what it was at first, and cocked his head for a moment before turning his whole body around to stare at the blank wall as the sound repeated.
  383.  
  384. From the other side, it continued at irregular intervals, sounding like someone was lightly dragging a stick against the wall, trying to tunnel through it Shawshank style. Could all the garbage he’d pilled up have attracted rats? The thought of some unknown vermin crawling over his things while he’d been unaware, caused David to shiver a bit and feel somewhat violated. He quit the game, and started thinking about his options, just as the scratching sound died down. Sitting still, trying to be as silent as possible, David waited to see if the noises came back.
  385.  
  386. Silence reigned long enough for him to begin letting his guard down and start to dismiss what he’d heard as his overactive imagination, or some sort of natural phenomena that happened in houses as they aged. Maybe the wall was settling or something. It was getting colder outside, maybe it was thermal contraction. Just as he was feeling complacent again, and was about to resume his game, a new noise came from the locked room.
  387.  
  388. It was the sound of the floorboard groaning lightly, as if someone had just stepped out of bed. Several moments later, it was followed by another, and then another. If David had been counting, he would probably have estimated that there were no more than three or four steps a minute. But his mind was occupied by a rising sense of dread, noticing that the steps that had begun near the far corner of the room, were methodically moving toward the door he was sitting next to.
  389.  
  390. His body was rigid with tension and a bead of sweat rolled down his temple as David tracked the steps in his imagination as they crossed the room until they stopped a few feet short of the door. He waited, and then waited some more, and then continued to wait, for a full ten minutes, but the sounds didn’t come again. Hesitantly, he raised himself off the couch and, as if in a trance, slowly approached the door. His hand shook slightly as he reached out and jiggled the knob, finding that it was still indeed locked.
  391.  
  392. While trying to open the door, David became aware of a horrid, putrid odor that seemed to come from nowhere, but permeate everything in an instant. It smelled like the decaying muck from a swamp or a marsh, and it was overwhelming. He was struck with the thought that maybe his room mate hadn’t moved out. Maybe he’d gotten sick or something and was stuck in there. David tried twisting the knob back and forth with more force, but it refused to budge, so he banged on the door a few times and yelled out, “Hey man, are you in there? Do you need help?”
  393.  
  394. There was no response.
  395.  
  396. Grimacing, David tried to cover his nose with his arm as he ran out the front door of the apartment, both to get some fresh air, and to see if he could peek into the window of the locked room that faced the staircase. He took a moment to breath in a lungful of clean air, and then turned toward the window that he passed every time he entered or exited the apartment. As usual, the blinds were drawn and louvered tightly so that it was impossible to see inside. David bent down and pressed his face close to the glass, hoping to see something through the tiny holes in the slats that the strings ran through.
  397.  
  398. “What are you doing, taking up a new hobby?” A voice called out from below him.
  399.  
  400. David jumped in the air and looked down to again find Becky surprising him from behind. She had one foot of the stairs and was looking up at him in confusion. She was wearing a jean jacket over a white turtle neck which clung tightly to her body. A pair of square toed boots poked out from her jeans. As per usual, she wasn’t wearing a mask, so it was easy to see the question reflected on her face.
  401.  
  402. “I-I thought I heard something in there,” David explained, pointing toward the window. “I thought that maybe it was my old room mate, but no one answered when I knocked, so I was trying to see if I could see whether he was in there and needed help or something.”
  403.  
  404. “Huh,” Becky said. She climbed the stairs with a determined frown.
  405.  
  406. “Watch out for the smell,” David said as she passed him and entered the apartment.
  407.  
  408. “What smell?” She called from inside.
  409.  
  410. David frowned and followed after her. The horrible odor from before had disappeared without a trace. “It smelled like something had died in here,” he said in confusion.
  411.  
  412. Becky took a deep, obvious whiff, and said, “I don’t smell anything out of the normal, and my nose is like a thousand times more sensitive than yours. You should try the moisturizing Irish Spring rather than the regular some time, by the way. I hear it’s better for your skin.”
  413.  
  414. Pulling his shirt away from his chest, David bent down and surreptitiously sniffed himself, but didn’t smell anything strange. Becky meanwhile walked over to the door leading to the downstairs bedroom. David opened his mouth to tell her it was locked, when she turned the knob and opened the door. A bit taken aback, David followed her into the other room.
  415.  
  416. “Hello? Anyone home?” Becky called out rhetorically. The room was painfully empty, the carpet still showing the marks left by a shampoo machine. Becky turned to David with a cocky smile. “Looks like no one’s home.”
  417.  
  418. “Yeah, I guess so,” David replied evenly.
  419.  
  420. They did their due diligence and checked the short hallway, the closets, and the attached bathroom, but they were all empty and sterile. There was no sign that anyone had been in there for weeks, or maybe months. Nothing that would explain the sounds David had heard.
  421.  
  422. Leaving the empty rooms behind, they returned to the kitchen, David feeling equal parts foolish and confused. What was happening to him? Was it all just in his head?
  423.  
  424. Becky’s mocking smile fell as she saw the state David was in. “You okay? I was thinking about hanging out for a bit, maybe watch another movie or something, but if you’re not feeling up to it ...”
  425.  
  426. She let the sentiment hang, and David shook his head, dismissing his unease to focus on what was important. “No. No, it’s cool. Please stay. I was probably just been imagining things. Maybe I’ve been self-medicating a bit too much.”
  427.  
  428. With a laugh, Becky said, “Then maybe I should finish this before you get a chance to.” She picked up the partially filled bottle of vodka and swished it back and forth.
  429.  
  430. “Be my guest, if you can stomach the cheap stuff.” David walked over and switched from the game console to the list of available streaming services.
  431.  
  432. Becky dumped the remaining vodka into a nearby cup and sauntered over to plop down on the couch. David handed her the remote, and she quickly started delving through horror movies. With one final distrustful glance at the nearby closed door, David settled down on his end of the couch and in no time at all he and Becky were laughing as a seemingly immortal killer made his way through all the passengers on a train, one machete swing at a time. Once more, as time passed, the sag in the couch caused him and Becky to find themselves pressed against each other. Leaning against Becky’s warm, reassuring bulk, it was easy for David to push the strange things he’d been seeing and hearing from his mind.
  433.  
  434. After the movie was over, David’s stomach growled, and he realized he hadn’t had anything to eat, since that morning’s proto-omelet. “Are you hungry?” He asked, glancing up at Becky.
  435.  
  436. She laughed. “It wasn’t me making that sound, but sure, I can eat. Are you planning on ordering out again?”
  437.  
  438. “Nah, I figured I’d treat you to a home cooked meal. Or at least more of a home cooked meal than something off grubhub. Do you like pasta?”
  439.  
  440. Becky shrugged. “Sure.” The movement jostled David and gave him the impetus to stand up.
  441.  
  442. “Cool. Then you just sit here and I’ll go work my culinary magic.”
  443.  
  444. Said magic was more akin to sleight of hand due to David’s kitchen skills being middling to say the least. That said, he could boil water with the best of them, and Alfredo sauce came in jars these days. Combined with vegetables that could be steamed in the microwave, and even David could throw together a heaping helping of pasta in only a few minutes.
  445.  
  446. He doubled Becky’s portion compared to his own and carried the plates over to the couch. They dined while watching the hijinks of the frat boys in Dude Bro Party Massacre III and while the meal didn’t taste terrible to David, Becky actually praised it, which gave David a warm feeling of pride.
  447.  
  448. After the movie, Becky joined David in the kitchen and they cleaned up together, giggling for no reason in particular when their hands accidentally touched from time to time while doing the dishes. David was too occupied with the tasks before him, and with Becky’s antics, to look out the tiny kitchen window. At least that’s what he told himself whenever he found his eyes beginning to stray in its direction and he had to purposefully look away. Storing the left over Alfredo next to the mystery pot in the fridge, an ominous, yet innocuous appearing relic that not even Becky had been able to muster up enough courage to open, David closed the refrigerator's door and turned to look over the rest of the kitchen. The dishes were being sanitized in the dish washer, the counters and stove were wiped down, the floor was mopped. All in all, the kitchen looked as good, if not better than when he’d moved in.
  449.  
  450. “Thanks for the help, Becky,” he said as he lightly knocked his red solo cup with hers. They were out of vodka, so they’d begun making Cuban screwdrivers and where nearly halfway through the rum.
  451.  
  452. “You’re welcome. It was a small price to pay for enjoying the evening with such excellent company.” Becky leaned closer to David, causing him to unconsciously back up. At least it was unconscious until his back hit an obstruction and he realized that he was stuck in a corner between the counter and a wall.
  453.  
  454. David laughed a bit nervously. “That should be my line. It’s nice to have company like you over. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when my friends hang out, but usually Dan’s too busy trying to 100% a game, and when Stan comes over, it’s usually to couch surf for a few months.”
  455.  
  456. Becky leaned back on the counter, causing her chest to take center stage and David wondered just how much was her breasts, and how much was fur. “That’s good. I’m glad that you enjoy my company, David.”
  457.  
  458. Still surreptitiously staring at her chest, perhaps due to the alcohol, David blurted out something he’d been wondering about. “By the way, what kind of anthro are you exactly? That is, if it’s not too personal a question.”
  459.  
  460. Becky chuckled before replying, “Tibetan mastiff. Though my family emigrated several generations back, so really all that I have left in the way of heritage is this thick coat. Sometimes it’s a real pain to deal with. I’m pretty sure that I’ve put my salon’s owner’s kids through college, twice. During winter though, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. How about you?”
  461.  
  462. Confused, David answered, “I’m human?”
  463.  
  464. With another chuckle, Becky said, “I know. But where does your family come from?”
  465.  
  466. David thought for a moment before admitting, “I’m not sure. I suppose I’m just your average Joe. Nothing special.”
  467.  
  468. Becky finished her drink. “You’re not very introspective are you, David?”
  469.  
  470. “I suppose not.”
  471.  
  472. She set down her cup with a hint of finality. “In fact, you strike me as something of an impulsive boy. A bit short sighted, not concerned all that much with the future, unable or unwilling to reflect on your mistakes and learn anything from the past. I imagine that’s led you to a few broken bones and other accidents over the years.”
  473.  
  474. Not entirely appreciating what Becky was driving at, David was honest enough with himself to admit, “Yeah, I suppose that’s one way to look at it.”
  475.  
  476. Becky’s tongue darted across her lips. “It seems to me like you’re the type of boy who needs someone to look after them. Otherwise, who knows what kind of trouble you might find yourself in.” Her eyes flicked down to David’s wrapped hand for a few moments before she looked him in the eye again, with a hint of smug amusement in her expression.
  477.  
  478. Defensively, David crossed his arms, hiding his hand from view. “I’ve done okay so far by myself.”
  479.  
  480. With affectionate exasperation, Becky smirked and rolled her eyes, but didn’t say anything. She softly contemplated David for a minute as she leaned heavily against the counter. “I’m sorry, David,” she said, sounding sincerely apologetic. “I think maybe I’ve had too much to drink tonight, and said a bit too much. I think I should call it a night and go before I ...” her smile grew wider, hungrier. “Well, before I lose my head any further. Please don’t hold what I said tonight against me tomorrow. It’s just the alcohol talking. You know how it is, I’m sure.”
  481.  
  482. David shrugged, letting the tension he hadn’t been aware of leave his shoulders. “Yeah, I guess so.”
  483.  
  484. He flinched a bit when Becky leaned forward and rested a hand on his cheek, trailing a finger along his cheekbone before lightly poking his nose. “Good boy. Sleep tight, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
  485.  
  486. Discombobulated by Becky’s forwardness, David froze up and wasn’t able to respond in time before she’d collected her things and had left his apartment, giving him a wink on her way out the door. His mind was a bit off kilter due to the rum, and he wasn’t sure what to make of what had just happened. What Becky said had been a bit upsetting. Moreso because she wasn’t entirely wrong, but her touch had been warm and loving. Deciding that he’d figure out his conflicting feelings in the morning when he was less intoxicated and had a better perspective on things, David went around turning off lights, then climbed the stairs to his room and after undressing, fell into bed.
  487.  
  488. Sometime later, in the depths of the night, David woke up with an intense need to pee. Unfortunately it was the time of year when the outdoor temperatures fluctuated between summer heat one day and winter cold the next. That night, it was on the winter side of things. David shivered as the cold air hit his skin when he slipped out of the protection of his blankets. His breath came out in silvery clouds suspended in the shafts of moonlight coming through the skylights. He wasn’t sure what time it was, but judging by the absolute silence of the world, it had to be late.
  489.  
  490. On quickly cooling feet he dashed to the bathroom and utilized echolocation to determine the approximate location of the toilet bowl. Finishing his business, he flushed the toilet and even though he couldn’t see much in the darkness, reflexively checked himself in the mirror. Reflected in the glass, death stared down at him.
  491.  
  492. There shouldn’t have been much light to see by, but David could make out every detail of the figure crouching down to peer in at him through the bathroom door. It was dressed in a shapeless ragged cloak or something, hiding its lanky body, or what it used as a body. It had no face, just a gleaming white bovine skull with empty black eye sockets which felt as if they were staring into David’s very soul. Sprouting from the skull, almost like a crown, or a halo, were a pair of antlers caped with a forest of needle-like points dyed black.
  493.  
  494. David stood stock still, staring at the thing in the mirror for several long seconds. He didn’t even dare to breathe as he watched the equally still creature with complete and undivided attention. The night was still, silent, and cold as David watched the monster watching him.
  495.  
  496. The chill of the bathroom’s cold tiles broke David’s stupor. Logically, there was only one way in or out of the room. It didn’t matter whether he decided on flight or fight. Either way, David was going to have to go through whatever it was. All the muscles in David’s body were beginning to ache from remaining tensed for so long. One of his hands rested on the bathroom’s counter and he used it as a spring, pushing off to whirl himself around to face this faceless thing. As he spun he slammed into the wall his bed rested against.
  497.  
  498. Flailing in his cocoon of sheets, David belatedly realized it was morning and what he’d just seen had been a dream. A nightmare. His racing heart began to slow down as he surveyed his sun drenched room. In the distance he could hear birds chirping and the muted sound of traffic passing by. He sighed and closed his eyes in relief. It had been a very vivid dream. So much so that he took a second to verify that his bed was still dry. Finding nothing amiss, David relaxed for a few minutes in the warmth of his blankets before rousing himself to put his dream behind him and get the day started. But as he went to climb out of bed, David started back, clutching his blankets to him as his back slammed into the wall again.
  499.  
  500. On the floor around his bed, and along the wall he was leaned against, was a large circle made of twigs woven together like some sort of wreath. Inside that was another ring made out of a white substance that looked like salt.
  501.  
  502. David stared wide-eyed at the two circles for a minute or two, and then wildly searched the room with his eyes, looking for, hoping for someone to jump out and yell ‘surprise!’ but no one did. The birds continued to chirp, the cars continued to pass by. It was another ordinary morning with just this one little thing out of place.
  503.  
  504. It took David nearly half an hour to work up the courage to get out of bed and step over the lines of wood and salt. The main reason why he screwed up his courage to move was the fact that his phone was sitting on his desk, plugged into its charger. Not wanting to deal with any closet related bullshit after everything else, David grabbed the phone and the clothes he’d been wearing yesterday that he’d left on the floor. He raced downstairs as he dressed, almost falling and cracking his head open on the spiral staircase.
  505.  
  506. He burst out of his apartment and leapt down the stairs, only slowing to a stop once he reached the parking lot. Like he was in the middle of a fire drill or something and he’d be safe once he was a certain distance from the building.
  507.  
  508. The asphalt was warm from the sun and felt pleasant on his bare feet as he paced back and forth. First he tried to call Dan, but after a couple of rings, the call went to an automated voice which told him that Dan hadn’t set up his voicemail yet. Knowing Dan, he was probably on day three or four of a week long delve into a visual novel, trying to see every possible ending at least once. As for Stanley, he’d never really been one for cellphones, relying on borrowing someone else’s when he needed to make a call. David liked his friends, but they weren’t the most reliable people. Though if he were being honest, the same could be said of him.
  509.  
  510. His list of friends exhausted, David turned to Google, but got back a list of links to craft projects on instagram and Wiccan facebook groups. Not even the second page of results returned anything helpful. Beginning to run out of options, David posted about what he’d experienced to a Mongolian basket weaving forum dedicated to the paranormal, but was dismissed as being a larping faggot.
  511.  
  512. By the time he’d given up hope for receiving any meaningful help, nearly half an hour had gone by without anything untoward happening. Mustering up his courage, David slunk back into his apartment long enough to find his shoes, wallet, and other bare necessities that he could retrieve without having to climb all the way back to his bedroom. Throwing on a bandanna for a mask, David fled the apartment again and started power walking toward campus. He didn’t have time to wait for the bus, he was on a mission to visit the repository of last resort for knowledge, the library.
  513.  
  514. The university’s library had been revamped in the ‘70’s or ‘80’s and had a certain Brutalist charm to it. Though it was six stories tall it somehow managed to appear both squat and imposing at the same time. David hadn’t visited the building since he’d been a fresh faced freshman anxious to take his academic career seriously by spending at least two hours studying for every hour of instruction. Those had been simpler times.
  515.  
  516. His head cooled and body warmed by the exercise of walking so far, upon entering the library, David asked a conveniently placed librarian for directions and found himself directed to one of the quiet floors. He passed shelf after shelf of books, quickly loosing sight of the tall, narrow windows that lined the perimeter of the building. Deep in the bowls of the library, across from, and overshadowed by, the complete works of Trotsky was the school’s selection of books dedicated to the occult.
  517.  
  518. Not entirely sure what it was he was looking for, David picked a few books at random and took them to a nearby table where he began to skim through their contents in search of dead antlered cows, creepy holiday wreaths, and anti-slug barriers.
  519.  
  520. He’d just opened a leather bound book on ancient Sumerian funeral rites, when a somewhat familiar monotone voice asked, “Oh, hey. Interested in the occult?”
  521.  
  522. David looked up from the book to find the goth zebra from the health clinic standing on the other side of the desk. She was wearing a pair of black jeans with horizontal tears running up almost their entire length, and a form fitting black tee-shirt with a tombstone situated under her breasts adorned with the name Bela Lugosi. Around her neck was a necklace with a silver ankh dangling from it, matching the silver rings she wore on her fingers and in her ears. Above her pink mask with the symbols >w<, her red contacts were set off by a thick layer of black mascara. There was white stubble in between the black stripes in her mane.
  523.  
  524. “Oh, hey …” David said awkwardly.
  525.  
  526. “Tanya,” She replied, “And you’re ...”
  527.  
  528. “David,” he said with a nod hello.
  529.  
  530. Tanya’s eyes danced in amusement. “Oh yeah, danger prone Dave. How could I forget? You were the first person I ever had to report to protective services.”
  531.  
  532. David’s eyebrows shot up. “Wait, what?”
  533.  
  534. Pulling out a chair, Tanya settled down across the table from David. “Yeah, apparently it’s a law where if a care provider sees signs of obvious abuse, or in your case, if a patient hits a certain threshold of injuries of a severe enough nature, we have to report them to protective services. I’m told that it’s not a totally uncommon thing, so I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you. Just a government watch list out there somewhere your name’s now on.”
  535.  
  536. “Great, another one,” David said with a sigh.
  537.  
  538. Tanya nodded toward the book that David was reading. “So, you interested in the occult?”
  539.  
  540. David shrugged. “Kind of, I guess. I’m doing some research, though I’m not even entirely sure what it is I’m looking for.”
  541.  
  542. Leaning over the table, causing David’s eyes to dart momentarily toward her shirt’s neckline, Tanya said conspiratorially, “Well, it might come as a surprise to you, but I’m something of an occult aficionado, some might even say expert. Last year I even tried to get a club started to research the strange and paranormal, but it got shut down after it turned out most of the other members were necrophiliacs who were just interested in breaking into the morgue. Anyway, what is it you’re looking into?”
  543.  
  544. David exhaled slowly, sizing Tanya up and wondering just how open minded she was. Deciding it was worth a shot, he asked, “Well, what do you know about weird things happening in dreams, and then … kind of outside of dreams?”
  545.  
  546. One of Tanya’s eyebrows shot up questioningly. “What do you mean?”
  547.  
  548. Briefly thinking over over what he’d seen and heard, David wasn’t entirely sure what had been real and what had been his overactive imagination. Hesitantly he began with “Well ...” and proceeded to tell her about how things had been feeling off lately, about the skull creature he’d seen in his nightmare, and about waking up surrounded by twigs and salt someone had placed while he’d slept. Tanya listened through the whole story with only a few twitches of her ears betraying that she was paying attention. Apprehensive that she’d dismiss him as paranoid, or high, or both, David summed up, “So I wasn’t able to find much online. I came here to see if they had anything, but didn’t see any books on woodworking with witches or strangely tall voyeuristic skeletons yet. Does … does any of that ring a bell, maybe? Do you think there’s something I can do to just make all this go away?”
  549.  
  550. Tanya drew in a long, slow breath and then rested both her elbows on the table and leaned far enough across it to encroach on David’s airspace. “This is so exciting!” She squealed, a far cry from her earlier monotone. “This is the first supernatural event I’ve seen in real life. Well, you’ve seen. But I’ve seen you, so that sort of counts, right? Anyway, tell me everything you can, every little detail. I have so many questions. First of all, what kind of wood did they use for the circle?”
  551.  
  552. David, a bit stunned by Tanya’s intensity, cut his eyes away for a moment before gazing at her incredulously. “What kind of wood? I don’t know. I mean, I didn’t exactly hang around to do an in depth analysis in the midst of me getting the fuck out of there.”
  553.  
  554. With a sigh, Tanya deflated a bit and sat back down in her chair. “Well, it would be helpful to know. Obviously the circle of salt was for protection, so the circle of wood probably was too. If we knew what it was made of, then we’d have a better idea of what it was meant to protect you from, or who made it in the first place since some people, or things, prefer to work with certain materials.”
  555.  
  556. “Well, I’m not much of a betting man, but if I were going to put money down, I’d say they were trying to protect me from the creepy skull thing. I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t just a normal nightmare because I don’t think my imagination is anywhere near good enough to come up with something like that, with that much detail.”
  557.  
  558. Tanya leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms as she contemplated the ceiling and hummed to herself. “Sometimes spirits, or other things, disguise themselves and fool our senses in order to hide their true nature. It takes a lot less energy to show up in a dream than it does to fully manifest in the physical realm, so maybe this thing was trying to dress up to scare you. At least I hope that’s the case. From what you described … well, if it’s what it sounds like, then that’s bad news for you, because they’re not very nice. Then again, I’m not a paranormal expert, so I can’t tell you what it was with absolute certainty. Lucky for you, I know someone who is an expert, and who has a library full of every ghost story, campfire tale, and folklore you can think of.” She pulled out her phone and checked the time. With a wince she said, “I really want to go check out your apartment and see the scene of the crime with my own eyes, but I have a shift starting in fifteen minutes, and while Dr. Richardson is a sweet lady, she can’t stand people not showing up when they’re scheduled. You should see how pissed she gets over no show appointments.” Tanya unlocked her phone and looked expectantly toward David. “Here, let’s exchange contact info. It’d be awesome if you could send me a photo of those circles, and I’ll get in contact with my friend and get her checking into what it is you might have seen.”
  559.  
  560. “Sure!” David said rather eagerly, and fumbled his phone out of his pocket. After navigating a few unfamiliar menus, he had Tanya’s number safely stored in his rather abridged contact list.
  561.  
  562. Putting his phone away, David asked, “So, in the meantime, is there something I can do, like a ritual, or a charm or, I don’t know, some candles I could light or something? You know, to try and calm this thing down and maybe get it to leave?”
  563.  
  564. Tanya sucked in air through her teeth. “I wouldn’t recommend doing anything just yet. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely ceremonies that we could do, but the one to use depends on what we’re dealing with. This isn’t Ghostbusters, with a one solution to every ghost kind of thing. If we do the wrong ritual, instead of getting whatever it is to leave, it’ll just piss it off. From what you said, it seems like things might be intensifying already, but you might be able to calm it down by refusing to acknowledge its existence. Or, that could cause it to act out even more. Really this isn’t an exact science. But if I were you, while we’re still figuring things out, I’d probably think about finding someplace else to sleep.” Glancing at her phone again, she stood up from her seat.
  565.  
  566. “Talk to you in a bit,” she said as she gave him a wave and started walking away. She’d made it a few steps when she paused and rushed back in order to pick up one of the books David had stacked on the table. “Almost forgot this.” As she rushed away, David took the opportunity to admire the way digitigrade legs made her shapely rear pop, enhanced by the sway of her tail, dyed completely black, or course.
  567.  
  568. After Tanya had disappeared, David pushed himself up from the table with a weary sigh. Time, distance, and his own inertia laden nature had lessened the morning’s terror. What he’d woken up to was still weird, and there was no way David would be sleeping in that bed again, but maybe there was another explanation for what he’d seen. Other than there being a boogeyman, or boogeymen in his house. Maybe it had been Dan, or even Becky, playing a joke on him. Maybe it was the result of some sort of natural phenomena from leaving the skylight open. Not that David was certain the skylight could even be opened. But that wasn’t the point. The world was a strange place, and maybe there was some other, non-paranomal explanation for his experiences.
  569.  
  570. Anyway, he needed to go back and at least get his stuff if nothing else.
  571.  
  572. Leaving the books he’d pulled out on the desk for some hapless librarian to reshelve, David opted to head to the nearest bus stop rather than walking all the way home. As he waited on the sidewalk under the tiny bus sign, he unlocked his phone and sent a text message to Dan. “Hey man, you alive?”
  573.  
  574. Not expecting to receive a reply anytime soon, David was surprised when a few minutes later, after the bus had arrived and he’d found a socially distant acceptable seat to slide into, his phone vibrated. “Sup?”
  575.  
  576. Thinking about how best to sum up everything he’d been going through over the past couple of days, David sent, “Creepy stuff happening in nowhere.”
  577.  
  578. “wat kind of stuff? Visiting parents rnow”
  579.  
  580. David winced. He knew how acrimonious Dan’s relationship with his family was. Something major must have happened to get him to visit home. “Shit, sorry man. Is it okay if I crash at your place in case of emergency?”
  581.  
  582. “sure”
  583.  
  584. Assuming that his conversation with the normally taciturn Dan was at an end, David pocketed his phone and watched the scenery slowly moving past the bus’ window as he waited for his stop. The familiar tenement blocks coming into view, David descended from the bus under the unwatchful eyes of the shirtless guy and made the long, lonesome walk back to his apartment. As he passed through the empty parking lots and under the equally empty windows of vacant apartments, he noticed a motorcycle parked in one of the spots in front of the stairs leading up to his home.
  585.  
  586. It was a naked bike, which, for a beginner such as David, meant he had no idea what it was, since he relied on the fairings to inform him the exact model. A Kawasaki logo on what remained did clue him into the manufacturer at least. Admiring the bike long enough to notice some road rash along one of the handlebars and a foot peg, along with a slight dent in the tank, David mounted the steps to his apartment.
  587.  
  588. As usual, the front door was unlocked. Not as usual, Becky was sitting on the crappy couch, watching a movie or something.
  589.  
  590. “Welcome home, David,” she said joyfully, her ears perking up and tail thumping against the couch cushions with a steady tempo.
  591.  
  592. Feeling slightly weirded out at her unexpected presence, David pulled his mask off with one hand and limply lifted the other in greeting. “Uh, hey.” He and his friends had something of a standing open door policy, but Becky was the first female David could recall ever inviting herself into his domicile. “So uh, not to sound rude, but what brings you here?”
  593.  
  594. Becky’s ears fell and she adopted a somewhat contrite expression. “Is it not okay? I came to see you and noticed the front door was unlocked, so I let myself in, in case you were home and just didn’t hear me. I looked around and noticed that there was a bit of a mess. I hope you aren’t upset, but I cleaned it up for you.” She laughed nervously. “It’s kind of a compulsion or something, I guess. Anyway, I sat down for a little break, and that’s when you came back.”
  595.  
  596. “Oh. That’s cool, I guess,” David said, his easy-going, or more accurately lazy, nature coming to the fore. “Wait a second, mess?” Realization struck him and he rushed up to his room. Opening the door he found it spic and span, cleaner than it had ever been since he’d moved in. Even the bed was made with fresh sheets, which was a bit odd since he only owned one set of sheets. Of course there was no sign of any questioningly paranormal circles of possible protection.
  597.  
  598. Gobsmacked, David leaned heavily against the door frame for a few seconds, staring at the open closet door across from him absently. Slowly he turned and plodded back down the stairs.
  599.  
  600. Becky had stood up from the couch, her hands clasped in front of her. “Sorry if I overstepped,” she said with worry in her voice.
  601.  
  602. “No, it’s fine,” David said with a dismissive wave. “Actually, I should probably be thanking you. Usually guys have to pay for pretty women to come clean their homes for them.” He offered her a wane smile as he walked over to the fridge to make himself a screwdriver. Finding that he was out of alcohol, he settled for a glass of orange juice instead. Frowning at the off taste, David asked, “By the way, when you were cleaning up, did you … did you see anything weird up there? Like a bunch of sticks, or salt, or … something, anything?”
  603.  
  604. Becky had walked over to stand near the transition between carpet and linoleum that demarcated the kitchen area. She raised a finger to her chin and tilted her head in thought. “No … I don’t think I saw anything like that. Just some dirty clothes, some garbage that hadn’t quite made it into the trash can, and some of your school work left in a pile. One of these days I need to teach you how a laundry hamper works.”
  605.  
  606. David sighed and slumped against the counter. What the hell? Was all of this in his head? Had that crash scrambled his brain somehow? Dumping out the remaining orange juice in his cup, the pulled his phone out of his pocket and sent a text to Tanya. “Sry, no pics of the crop circles. Friend cleaned my room.”
  607.  
  608. Almost immediately Tanya replied with a disappointed dugong emoji, and then, “That sux. Do u mind sending me as many details u can remember? Specvific features can’tp research. *can help”
  609.  
  610. Staring at his phone, there wasn’t much David could think of adding to his description he’d already given her. Skull, horns, bone numbing chill of sheer terror.
  611.  
  612. “Who are you talking to, David?” Becky asked, leaning toward him on the counter.
  613.  
  614. David glanced at her before tilting the phone a bit further away from her sight. “A friend.” He typed out what he could remember about the things he’d seen and sent it to Tanya. A moment later he received a thumbs up emoji in reply. Looking up to find Becky giving his phone a hard stare, her eyes softening when she looked up to meet his gaze, David asked, “Oh yeah, is that bike outside yours?”
  615.  
  616. “Yeah, I just got it. Nice isn’t it?”
  617.  
  618. “Oh yeah, it looks pretty sweet. My friend Dan has a Kawasaki too, a Ninja. He loves that bike more than anything else in the world. I’ve got, well had, a Katana, but it’s been in the shop since my accident and I’m still waiting to hear back from my insurance whether they’re going to fix it or total it. I already miss riding, though I suppose with my hand being the way it is, it’ll still be a while till I can work the clutch. So, is your bike new?”
  619.  
  620. Becky’s eyes narrowed mirthfully. “It’s preowned. In fact, I Just picked it up recently for a killer deal.”
  621.  
  622. David nodded. “I noticed there were a few scratches on it that looks like it was dropped. I bet that helped with negotiating the price.”
  623.  
  624. “It didn’t hurt things, I’ll say that.” She lightly slapped the counter. “You said you missed riding, right? How about we go for a ride sometime. I’ve got something that just came up that I need to take care of later this afternoon, but other than that, I’m free most of the time.”
  625.  
  626. “That sounds fun,” David said, straightening himself. Catching sight of the now bare spot he usually kept his liquor, he proposed, “Actually, if you’re up for it, how about going now? I’m out of booze, so we could go get lunch and then hit the liquor store.”
  627.  
  628. Becky nodded slowly, thoughtfully. “Lunch sounds nice, but do you think maybe we could skip the liquor store? I’ve noticed how much you’ve been drinking, David, and I’m a bit concerned.”
  629.  
  630. With a roll of his eyes, David replied, “I’m in college, Becky. Drinking is like sixty percent of what you do in school. I know guys on campus who drink ten times as much as I do and manage to pass their classes. Besides, right now my drinking is medicinal. You know, to help with the pain. It’s better than getting addicted to opioids, right?”
  631.  
  632. Becky walked around the counter, staring down at him with a hint of sternness. “And what happens when you medicinally blow up your liver?” She poked him just below his chest, hard. Wincing, David jumped back a few inches and pressed his hand against the wound. “It doesn’t matter what other idiots are doing, I’m worried about you, David. I’m not saying that you need to give it up entirely, but how about trying to drink a little less. Instead of today, let’s go to the store tomorrow, and instead of buying a gallon, how about a smaller bottle?”
  633.  
  634. Still clutching his sore abdomen, David could tell from her tone of voice that Becky was sincerely concerned about his health, which made him feel a bit guilty. Grudgingly he acquiesced. “Okay. I’ll try to cut back.”
  635.  
  636. A smile bloomed on Becky’s face and her tail knocked loudly against the kitchen cabinet doors. “Thank you,” she said as she stepped forward and pulled him into a surprise hug. Unfortunately she released him well before his brain could catch up to what was happening and exult in the soft, squishy feeling engulfing his front. “Now then, are you still up for lunch?”
  637.  
  638. Feeling rather discombobulated, David said, “Sure.”
  639.  
  640. Becky clapped. “Great! Let’s get our gear on and go!”
  641.  
  642. She left him in his daze and turned off the TV before heading outside. David shook his head a bit to clear it, and then went up to his room. He pulled his riding gear out of the closet and closed the door after him. It was the same gear he’d been wearing when he’d crashed. He threw on the jacket, and wandered downstairs and out to the parking lot. Becky frowned when she saw the scratched helmet in his hands, still sporting a few clumps of grass in some of the vents.
  643.  
  644. “You know you’re supposed to throw those away and get a new one once it’s hit the ground, right?”
  645.  
  646. David shrugged. “I’ll get a new one next time. I mean, as long as I don’t hit the same spot again, it should be fine. Just don’t crash, and we should be good.”
  647.  
  648. Becky scoffed and rolled her eyes, but she mounted the bike and lifted the kickstand before standing up, holding the bike steady for David to climb on behind her, careful not to pinch her tail. Resting on the passenger pegs, he gingerly placed his hands just above her hips. As she settled back down on the seat, she reached down and pulled his hands forward, placing them somewhere around her belly button, plastering his front against her back. She patted his now clasped hands, then started the bike and threw it into first. Without the slightest jolt, she smoothly navigated through the apartment complex’s parking lots and out onto the road.
  649.  
  650. Squeezed so tightly against her, David couldn’t help noticing that underneath her layer of soft fur, Becky was solidly muscled. She felt like an iron bar wrapped in velvet. The revelation was a bit surprising, and David wondered what her routine was like. He’d tried weight lifting himself a couple of years before, but hadn’t been able to maintain a schedule and had slowly allowed his visits to the gym to become less and less frequent.
  651.  
  652. There wasn’t much traffic on the streets of the city for them to weave through, so it only took a few minutes for them to arrive at their destination, a small sushi restaurant close to campus that David hadn’t been to in a few months due to insufficient funds. They took their helmets off and left them on the bike as they donned their face masks, only to take them off again a matter of minutes later once they’d entered the restaurant and had been seated.
  653.  
  654. Other than theirs, there were only a few other occupied tables. Thanks to so few patrons, it didn’t take long for their food to be prepared once they’d put their order in. Lunch passed by quickly and peacefully as David and Becky enjoyed discussing their favorite horror movies over a selection of not so fresh fish. There was a moment of consternation though when it came time to settle the bill. Both of them wanted to pay for the meal, but they eventually had to settle for each paying half, which, while a blow to David’s finances, assuaged his chivalrous spirit since Becky had devoured the lion’s share of the meal.
  655.  
  656. The ride home was uneventful, though David did nearly fall off the back of the bike when they accelerated from a stoplight. He found himself clutching Becky even tighter as she continued to quickly row through the gears, gaily laughing in the wind. Her gradual coasting to a stop in front of their apartment building was much more subdued. She didn’t kill the motor, but leaned forward, and David hopped off the bike. They gave each other a wave before Becky once again roared off on whatever errands she needed to run.
  657.  
  658. Watching her ride away, David walked up to his apartment, and this time didn’t find anyone unexpectedly visiting. Settling on the couch, pleasantly full from lunch, he lazily checked his phone, but he hadn’t received any messages. He browsed the internet for a bit but there wasn’t much to interest him their either, so he turned on his console and loaded the latest RPG that he’d been playing off and on. He could only vaguely remember the story, but it didn’t matter. He just needed to go to the quest markers on the minimap, kill some things, turn in the quest, and then move on to the next. From time to time a rhythmic tapping came from the wall behind him, but it sounded like the heating system cycling, gearing up for the cold months ahead, so he just ignored it.
  659.  
  660. The afternoon slipped away as David’s avatar hacked and slashed her way through a fantasy world. He’d stopped playing only occasionally to massage his thumb and pop a few pain pills. Evening had begun to fall and the apartment had grown dusky by the time David discerned the sound of a motor in the distance. He saved his game as he heard someone bounding up the stairs. Becky burst into the room and pulled down her black mask to reveal a bright smile. “Hey, David! Up for another movie night? I brought dinner.” She brandished a plastic bag dangling from her fist.
  661.  
  662. “Sure, sounds good to me,” David said, quitting his game and standing up to follow her into the kitchen, flipping on lights as they went.
  663.  
  664. “Did you have a good day?” Becky asked as she set the bag on the counter and began unloading tin and plastic containers from a nearby Indian restaurant.
  665.  
  666. David shrugged as he opened up a cupboard to retrieve some plates. “Same old, really. A bit of studying, a break here and there, you know, the usual collegiate day. How about you?”
  667.  
  668. Becky smiled in his direction. “Oh yeah, my day was great. I was able to wrap everything up I needed to, and … well, to be honest, I’ve been feeling a bit anxious lately, but today I figured out why. I realized that I was afraid of losing something that’s important to me. I was trying to figure out how to overcome my anxiety, when I realized, I just needed to make sure that I tied – secured that important thing closer to me, so no one else can take it.”
  669.  
  670. Sizing her up, David said, “I don’t think you really need to worry to much about anyone trying to take something from you without you wanting them to, Becky. I know I wouldn’t want to piss you off if I could help it.”
  671.  
  672. Becky flashed him a smile and said, “Well, better safe than sorry.” She opened the many food containers and began piling two plates high with a profusion of food that made David’s still somewhat full stomach feel a bit queasy. She passed him the plates and he carried them to the couch while she puttered around the kitchen and poured them drinks.
  673.  
  674. David began browsing movies they hadn’t watched yet, and accepted the cup she offered him when she settled down next to him on the couch. Once again, it was alcohol free orange juice, which seemed like an odd pairing with the chicken tikka masala, but it probably was all he had left to drink in the house. Maybe it was the spices from the meal, but as the evening wore on, the juice tasted even more off than he remembered.
  675.  
  676. David pecked at his food, not feeling particularly hungry. The movie he’d chosen droned on, but at some point he’d lost track of the plot. He spent some time trying to figure out what was going on, but felt strangely drowsy, and unmotivated to really pay attention to what was happening on screen. It was a queer drowsiness that was settling over him. He found himself leaning heavily against Becky, his head on her shoulder since he lacked the strength to hold it up himself. Every time he blinked, it felt as if the movie had jumped to a new scene, it might have even been a different movie all together. It didn’t matter though because the images were beginning to fall apart into colorful noise.
  677.  
  678. At some point he’d fallen over. He was staring at the ceiling. Or maybe it was the wall, with shadows cast on it. Maybe it was Plato’s cave. What if the philosophers had never made it outside the cave? What if they’d just found a new wall with higher def shadows? There was a white face staring at him from a dark corner of the ceiling/wall, and David felt that was an important piece of information that he should take particular note of.
  679.  
  680. Becky was over him now, looking down at him with kind, gentle eyes. She looked like she’d said something, but David couldn’t hear her. He could hear everything, and it all was muddled together into a single long, uninterrupted drone. Like the roar of the solar wind beating against his head, unceasing for as long as the sun lived. He would die before the sun. That meant that for him, the sound would last forever.
  681.  
  682. His body tingled and felt wire thin. As if only his face, arms, legs, and spine were left. Like he wasn’t David anymore, but a stick figure that represented David, left behind on a white board somewhere, facing a ceiling/wall full of shadows.
  683.  
  684. Dimly and gradually he realized he felt pressure around his groin. He was a stick figure with a penis. It was wet, then cold, and then wet and warm, and tight. David thought that he should look down to see if he was still there, but he’d forgotten how. All he could do was lie there, staring at the ceiling/wall.
  685.  
  686. Becky was over him again. She didn’t look kind and gentle anymore. She was smiling, but it was a mean smile. It was a hungry smile. It was a nasty smile. David blinked, maybe. His penis was still caught in something tight and wet, but it wasn’t Becky over him anymore, it was someone else. She had long, thick, filthy black hair, ash white fur, grey in places, and brilliant red eyes. She might have been smiling like a maniac, or maybe she just didn’t have any lips. She leaned down and breathed a fetid, rotting breath into David’s face. He tried to push her away with his stick figure arms, or thought he tried, but she caught his hands.
  687.  
  688. No, it was Becky who had taken his hands in hers, playing with them like an adult plays with a baby reaching for them. Her face was pressed close to David’s, her teeth locked in a rigor mortis grimace. Some saliva fell from her clenched teeth and landed on David’s cheek, leaving a wet, cooling trail as it slid down the side of his face.
  689.  
  690. Groggily, David woke up.
  691.  
  692. His head was killing him and he was suffering from a wicked case of cotton mouth. Maybe Becky had been right about laying off the alcohol. It took him a minute to realize that he’d fallen asleep on the couch at some point, which would explain why he had a kink in his back. Vaguely he remembered fragments of a nightmare he’d had, but did his best to encourage them to make the journey to the land of forgotten dreams. He couldn’t really recall what had happened the previous night, but Becky must have brought some booze over, and he’d over indulged.
  693.  
  694. Someone, probably Becky, had covered him with a blanket from his bed. David pushed it aside to roll out of bed, well, off the couch, and as he did so, he felt a cold, slimy shift in his boxers and shamefully realized that he’d had a ‘nocturnal emission.’ He hadn’t had one of those since sophomore year in high school when he sat behind Sarah McKenzie in World History, and had a front row seat to her whale tail. Tuesdays had always been his favorite. That was black lace day. Anyway, he needed to clean himself up.
  695.  
  696. Awkwardly waddling up the stairs to his room, David retrieved a change of clothes from his open closet, closing the door behind him. Stepping into the bathroom, he started the shower to warm it up and disrobed. The wet patch around his crotch was larger than he remembered it being back in high school. Maybe he’d been backed up. Shrugging, David tossed his dirty clothes in a bunch near the door and wrapping a plastic bag over his bandaged hand, stepped into the warm spray of the shower.
  697.  
  698. The heat helped sooth the aches and pains wracking his body. The shoulder he’d sprained in the accident was particularly sore that morning. He must have slept on it wrong. Swallowing some of the falling tap water to help assuage his thirst, David got to washing. He spent longer in the shower than normal, relaxing in the heat and the steam pounding against his body, until the water began to turn tepid. Reluctantly, he finished up and closed the water tap and blindly grabbed the towel he kept nearby. It was one of the ones he’d missed in the great cleaning, so it had stiffened in the shape of the hook it normally hung from.
  699.  
  700. After toweling off, David threw on his clothes, pausing between applying his deodorant and putting on his shirt, when he noticed that he needed to clean his bathroom mirror. In the steam from the shower, he could see where he’d left hand prints on the glass. Though as he studied them, he realized that there were actually two sets of hand prints. Ones that belonged to him, and another set that belonged to a hand smaller than his. He wiped them all away hastily, with his damp towel. He probably hadn’t cleaned the mirror since he’d moved in, and they’d been left from the previous tenant.
  701.  
  702. Stepping out of the bathroom, dressed in a fresh set of clothes which bore a great similarity to his previous outfit, David checked his phone and found several texts from Tanya. They started late last night, with her saying that she’d found something, then she apologized for texting so late, then she apologized for apologizing for some reason. Then followed a few texts that made David feel a case of second hand embarrassment. Anyway, ultimately the outcome was her asking him to text her to set up a time to go by her place to go over what she’d found.
  703.  
  704. Glancing up from the phone, David frowned at the closet door that was standing open. He cocked his head and narrowed his eyes in thought for a moment before shrugging and closing it. He crossed his room and was on the verge of stepping on the stairs leading down, when he heard the click of a door latch, and the soft whine of barely oiled hinges. He paused for a moment, but then muttered to himself, “Fuck this,” and continued downstairs without looking back.
  705.  
  706. Refocusing on the texts he’d received, he sent Tanya an apology for missing them when they’d originally come in. He told her that his schedule was wide open, so he could swing by her place whenever worked for her. Locking his phone and slipping it into his pocket, out of habit, David headed over to the kitchen.
  707.  
  708. Feeling a bit peckish, he pulled a carton of eggs from the fridge, gagging a bit at the sight of the orange juice carton squatting in the middle of an otherwise barren shelf. Taking a few of the eggs, he began the laborious task of scrambling them, in doing so, he opened his catch all drawer for utensils, and frowned in confusion when he noticed that it was sparser than usual.
  709.  
  710. His clutch of spatulas was still there, so he was set for his eggcelent adventure, but the area reserved for the couple of kitchen knives he owned was empty. After a quick search, he found that they weren't’ in the dishwasher, or in one of the other drawers. In fact, all of his knives and forks were missing. Only the spoons and some of the duller disposable sporks remained.
  711.  
  712. David felt equal parts perplexed and violated. He’d been the victim of theft before, but it had always been outside his home. A bike missing from the rack or a water bottle from the gym. When it was someone coming into his apartment and taking something, it felt much more … personal. For it to be his just his knives …
  713.  
  714. Forgetting breakfast, David searched through the apartment. Well, the living room and kitchen. He didn’t quite feel up to going back upstairs just yet. Both rooms had been cleaned, so it wasn’t easy to find anything, but after a vigorous search, he began to notice a common theme. The baseball bat stashed behind the chair next to the front door was missing. So too was the cheap katana he and Dan had bought at the mall. The various lighters were gone, while the mostly melted scented candles remained. Even the electrical outlets had been sealed with child protectors. It was as if someone had gone through his apartment trying to remove anything that could be potentially harmful.
  715.  
  716. Sighing through his nose in anger, David could think of one likely culprit. While it was true that he normally left his apartment unlocked, and any random passerby could come or go as they pleased, Becky was the only person David knew who he could envision passing up the game consoles and hi-def television to steal the ten dollar special silverware. He was angry enough to begin thinking about turning on his heel and marching downstairs to demand an explanation from his new friend, when his phone buzzed.
  717.  
  718. Glancing down at it, David found a text from Tanya, letting him know that any time that morning would work for her. Understanding himself well enough to know that if he gave the matter some time to sit in the back of his mind, his natural lethargy and passiveness would take care of his anger in a less combative manner than confronting anyone, David tersely replied to Tanya that he’d be right over, and asked for directions to her place.
  719.  
  720. It turned out Tanya lived in one of the older dorms on campus. While most of the residence halls had adopted apartment like floor plans with communal living rooms and individual bedrooms, Tanya’s was one of the last relics from the previous century that had been constructed like a fortress, with all the amenities of a barracks, or a prison.
  721.  
  722. She’d told him to text her when he was close, but David found her outside the dorm’s security gate as he walked from the bus stop to the dorm’s main entrance.
  723.  
  724. “Hey, did you wait long?” David asked apologetically. If he’d known she’d be waiting for him, he would have warned her he was taking the slow bus from China.
  725.  
  726. “No, I just got here,” Tanya breezily replied. Unlike David, who had simplified his wardrobe into an almost uniform-like ensemble of a black tee shirt and blue jeans, Tanya obviously had a more diverse taste in clothing. Shew as wearing a modest black dress, which ended just above her backwards knees. It was trimmed with feline skull patterned ribbons, which paired well with the vertically striped black and white tights which led down to a pair of low heeled black pumps. Around her neck was a black choker, dangling from which was a silver ankh, which matched the pair she wore as ear rings. Her facemask had a printing of an open shark mouth. “My room mate should be in class right now, so we shouldn’t be interrupted for the next couple of hours,” Tanya said as she turned and beckoned David to follow after her. “I’ve found that it can be difficult to have conversations around non-believers. Especially when they refer to the occult as ‘creepy emo crap.’”
  727.  
  728. David followed Tanya through the heavy security door propped open by a cinder block. Probably the same one that had been used to bash the locking mechanism into the mangled mess it currently was. “You guys still have room mates?” David asked. “I thought you got a five by ten cell in here. How does social distancing work in a space like that?”
  729.  
  730. Tanya shrugged as they crossed the dark and empty communal area to a pair of elevator doors. “We all tested negative before they allowed us to move back in, and I guess that’s enough of a waiver for the university. We haven’t had to retest since then.”
  731.  
  732. Stepping into the elevator, David and Tanya stood on the stickers that had been placed on the floor for their protection. Tanya selected a floor from the row of buttons and they suffered through several seconds of awkward elevator silence. Once the elevator came to a halt and the doors opened with a pleasant ding, Tanya leaned out and looked both ways down the corridor they’d arrived at. “Looks like the coast is clear. This is a coed floor, so, while guys aren’t forbidden, the RA doesn’t exactly make them welcome,” she explained as she lead the way down the hallway. “Technically we’re supposed to keep the door open if we have a guy over, but there’s no way that’s happening while we’re talking about ghosts. I get made fun of enough for my Slimer slippers as it is.” They didn’t travel far down the pastel yellow cinder block hall before they came to a heavy wood door bearing two construction paper cutout books with the names Tanya and Emily on them. “Well, here we are,” Tanya said as she pushed the door open.
  733.  
  734. “Nice place,” David said insincerely as he slipped past Tanya into the room. It was a very stereotypical college dorm room. A single window provided most of the light. On either side of the window were two matching narrow desks with identically worn wooden chairs. Butted up against the desks were two twin beds pressed against opposite walls. Two wardrobes created a narrow hallway between the door and the rest of the room. The room smelled of incense, peaches, strawberry flavored gum, and hairspray. Though the furniture was mirrored, the decoration was not. David assumed the side of the room with the black bedspread, the Joy Division poster, and the gutted lavender and black candles crowding the desk and windowsill was Tanya’s. Though maybe she’d surprise him and claim the side that was surprisingly spartan, aside from the pink bedspread and worn teddy bear propped against the bed’s single pillow. “Well, it’s uh, homey.”
  735.  
  736. Tanya removed her mask, revealing her black lipstick and a rakish grin. “Yes, very cozy for a family. I knew I liked you, Lloyd. I’ve always liked you.”
  737.  
  738. David couldn’t help his own wide smile as he glanced around and asked, “So, is there someplace I should sit, or ...”
  739.  
  740. “Oh, um, right, you can use my roommate’s chair,” Tanya said, brushing past David to pull the chair from the pink side of the room’s desk and point it toward the dark side. David settled down on the seat while Tanya claimed the other and began pulling antique looking books out from her desk drawer. “So, have you experienced any more manifestations?”
  741.  
  742. David thought back over his spotty memory of the past day or so. “I don’t think so. Not really. I mean, nothing I could definitively say supernatural, I guess. My closet door doesn’t seem to want to stay closed, but that’s about it.”
  743.  
  744. Resting her hand on the stack of books she’d piled on the table, Tanya hummed in thought. “Well, that’s not entirely surprising. It can take a lot of energy for a creature not of this world to interact with the material realm, and it can take some time to build up that energy. That’s why these things typically happen in cycles of high activity followed by calm periods.” She glanced down at the books and pulled one to the top of the pile. Opening it, she began to flip through the pages as she continued, “I spoke with my … friend, about what it was you saw, and unfortunately she agreed that while we don’t have much to go on, what we do have point to … well, something less than nice.”
  745.  
  746. David laughed humorlessly. “Well, based off of what I’ve seen, and felt, I wasn’t really expecting it to be Casper.”
  747.  
  748. Looking up from her book, Tanya regarded him with an even, unamused gaze. “There’s a pretty large gap between a friendly guardian spirit, and something that’s after your life. Totally off topic, but have you visited the woods lately, maybe gone for a hike or something?”
  749.  
  750. “No, hiking isn’t really my thing,” David said with a shake of his head. “Nature usually doesn’t have that great a cell reception.”
  751.  
  752. Tanya pursed her lips and tilted her head back toward the book. “Well, it’s probably not a skinwalker then.” She said musingly. “Hopefully. How about any physical marks on your body, like scratches or new bruises, or something? Or maybe, have you been feeling tired, low on energy, easily irritable lately?”
  753.  
  754. With a frown, David ran through a quick status of his person, but came up empty. “No, nothing like that. Just fucked up dreams and all these little things here and there that don’t seem much by themselves, but they just keep … accumulating, and, I don’t know, give me an uneasy feeling.” He leaned down and rested his elbows on his knees and cradled his head in his hands, running his fingers through his hair before looking up at Tanya from his new vantage point. Talking about what was happening to him made him feel uncomfortable, and unhinged. But at the same time, with how serious Tanya was taking it, he felt like things were becoming strangely concrete and disquietingly real.
  755.  
  756. Hopefully he asked, “I know you said that we needed to figure out what it is exactly before we deal with it, but is there some sort of general purpose ritual we could do or something, like saging the place? Or maybe use some of those ghost hunting gadgets that could let us communicate with it to figure out what it wants?”
  757.  
  758. With a roll of her eyes, Tanya replied, “You know those shows are pretty much bullshit, right? Sure, there’s ways we can contact the spirit world, but they’re not through a glorified app. You have to treat the supernatural with respect and caution, or you might end up attracting the attention of something far, far worse. As far as rituals go, saging your apartment probably wouldn’t hurt, but depending on how strong the spirit is, it probably wouldn’t help much either.”
  759.  
  760. She turned back to the book she was holding and flipped through it to land on an illustrated page. Lifting the book up, she turned it so that David could easily read it. “Now then, based off of what we have so far, I’m leaning toward it being this.” She tapped the page and David followed her digit to where it was resting on the heading, “Demonic Forces.” On the opposing page was a black and white illustration of Baphomet.
  761.  
  762. Looking back to Tanya, his eyebrow raised incredulously, David asked her, “A demon? Really? I feel like things just escalated quickly. Like we went from, I don’t know, a poltergeist or something, and just ran straight, boom, to Satan.”
  763.  
  764. Tanya scoffed and rolled her eyes. Taking a deep breath, which caused David’s eyes to involuntarily jump to her nicely sized breasts just for a micro-second, she said, with an air of exasperation, “You probably don’t even know what a poltergeist is.”
  765.  
  766. “I’ve seen the movie.”
  767.  
  768. She let out a sigh. “Listen, when we’re discussing the paranormal, demons probably don’t mean what you’re thinking. Broadly speaking, ghosts are divided into two main types. The formerly living, and things that were never what we would consider alive. Everything in the second category falls under the label of demonic, regardless of their association with the Abrahamic traditions. It’s kind of a catch all term for when the entity you’re dealing with can’t be explained by someone who’s deceased.”
  769.  
  770. David clasped his hands together and placed them in front of his mouth. He had a few concerns with the direction of the conversation, and the fact that he wasn’t immediately dismissing what Tanya was saying out of hand. “So, what you’re saying is that I’m being haunted by something that was never alive? Like a pissed off rock or something?”
  771.  
  772. “No. It’s more like ...” Tanya looked off to the side in thought for a few seconds before her eyes lit up and she focused on David again. He couldn’t help but feel a bit bewitched by her excited gaze. “It’s like we’re living on two different planets. Like we’re here on Earth, and they’re on Mars, but instead of being separated by space, we’re separated by plains of existence, or I guess, you could call them dimensions. Usually it’s impossible to cross the boundaries between worlds, but every once in a while, something over there visits us here, or someone from here visits there, and you get … well, this.”
  773.  
  774. David nodded his head a few times in understanding. “So basically, I’m being haunted by an illegal alien.”
  775.  
  776. Tanya let out a little laugh and shrugged slightly. “I mean, kinda? Look, the important thing is that some of these demons, or non-human entities, can be pretty nasty. They feed off of negative emotions like anger, hate, suffering, fear, things like that, so they try their best to evoke those feelings in you. That’s why I think it appeared to you that way, to draw energy it needed in order to anchor itself in our reality better, to manifest itself in more concrete ways.”
  777.  
  778. With a turn of his head, David contemplated the blue sky out Tanya’s window as he mulled over what she’d said to him. “What about those protective circles then, who made those?”
  779.  
  780. “That’s one of the many things I’m not sure about,” Tanya admitted as she leaned back in her chair. “Really, we just don’t have all that much information to go off of. I’d love to be able to do a formal investigation of your place to see if we could maybe answer some of those questions.”
  781.  
  782. Perking up, David quickly sat straighter in his seat. “That sounds good. Let’s do that, an investigation and all that jazz. When can we do it? Today? Tomorrow?”
  783.  
  784. Tanya held up her hands as if to stop him. “Whoa there, don’t get too excited. First I have to contact my … friends and see what their schedules are like, and what we need to prepare beforehand. I know some people who are … sensitive to the paranormal like to meditate for a few days before visiting an active site.”
  785.  
  786. A bit of suspicion creeping into his voice, David asked, “These friends, they’re not the necrophiliacs you mentioned before, are they?”
  787.  
  788. Tanya averted her eyes and stretched back in her seat before replying, “Well … I mean, there’s not any dead bodies at your place, right? And honestly, I don’t know that they’re all necrophiliacs. I don’t go around asking what everyone’s fetishes are. At least not until the second date.”
  789.  
  790. With a grin, David asked, “So that means we can talk about my possible appreciation for bondage next time then?” He belatedly realized his mouth had outrun his brain when Tanya’s cheeks darkened in a blush and she looked at him with surprised incredulity.
  791.  
  792. She crossed one arm in front of her chest and clasped her elbow. “I mean … wow, okay, yeah, that’s … that’s out there. I guess we could like talk about that kind of thing in more depth, later. Yeah.”
  793.  
  794. Trying not to look directly at her, David rubbed the back of his neck. “Sorry, sorry. That was TMI. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. Sorry.”
  795.  
  796. “Oh no,” Tanya said as she waved her hands placatingly. “It’s cool. It’s cool.” She paused for a few pregnant seconds before biting her lips and asking, “But um, do you like being the tie-er, or the tie-ie?” Rapidly waving her hand back and forth while shaking her head, causing her mane to rapidly sway to and fro, she said, “Wait, no, you don’t need to answer that.”
  797.  
  798. “Yeah,” David agreed, feeling pretty embarrassed still. “We, um, should probably get back to planning that investigation thing. And you’re right, I mean, I might not agree with non-consensual relations with dead people, but I don’t think that’s going to have much bearing on whether we can talk to this demon or not.”
  799.  
  800. “Cool. Well, I’ll reach out to my friends and see what their availability is. Hopefully we can get together by this weekend and figure out exactly what this thing is, and how to get rid of it for you.”
  801.  
  802. David sighed. “That would be awesome. I mean, a couple of months ago I was feeling a bit down because of how boring my life was. Now, I’d do just about anything if I could get back to boring.”
  803.  
  804. Brushing part of her mane behind her ear, Tanya crossed her legs and leaned forward. “Oh come on, you can’t have been all that boring. I mean, you crashed a motorcycle, that’s exciting, right?”
  805.  
  806. With a self-deprecating laugh, David shrugged. “Well, I guess. But other than that, I’m a pretty normal, boring kind of guy. I spend most of my time playing video games or stuck on social media. I keep trying to stop, but every day when I wake up, I seem to fall back into the same old routine. But what about you? I can tell you enjoy the paranormal and stuff, but what do you do in your spare time, when you’re not shoving q-tips up people’s noses or patching up idiots who fell of their motorcycles?”
  807.  
  808. Tanya turned her head and regarded the posters on her wall for a second before replying, “Well, I guess I’m a pretty stereotypical spooky kid. I like to read up on ghosts and cryptids. I like watching scary movies, especially atmospheric thrillers. Torture porn isn’t really my thing. I’m a member of … a group of friends. We get together a couple of times a month and perform rituals and things. It’s kind of like a Sunday barbecue usually, but in the woods, and Halloween themed.”
  809.  
  810. David nodded encouragingly. “That sounds pretty cool,” he said with a bit of envy. “It’s cool that you have something like that, that you’re passionate about, and that you have other people who feel the same way that you can hang out with. My friends and I, well, we hang out, but we don’t have a whole lot of shared interests, so we mostly just chill at one of our houses and watch whatever is on while talking about going out and doing something, without us ever actually going out. Sometimes it feels like we’re just friends due to inertia. So, it’s cool that you’ve got this whole thing going on. Did you always like the supernatural and stuff, or did you get bitten by a vampire one night and show up to school wearing all black the next day?”
  811.  
  812. With a laugh, Tanya said, “It was more of the vampire thing, but without a vampire. Growing up, I was a pretty typical girl; Disney princesses, Barbie, pink wallpaper, all that. But around sixth grade, I saw a movie and the villain was this witch, and she was so awesome. Her outfit was badass and she didn’t take shit from anyone, and she had these kickass super powers. I remember that she had these super tall black boots that I thought were just so cool. After I saw the movie I took a black sharpie to my sneakers and my mom was super pissed. I guess after that, I just got more and more into it. I started reading and watching everything I could on witches, then vampires, then ghosts, and so on. Somewhere along the way I stopped listening to pop and started wearing Doc Martins.”
  813.  
  814. “So did you ever get those boots, or the awesome super powers?”
  815.  
  816. That got another laugh out of Tanya. “No, not really. I’m still on the lookout for those boots. They had like ten inch heels and went all the way up to her thighs. As far as the super powers, I found out that magic is usually much less sexy and a lot more subdued than you’d think.”
  817.  
  818. “Well, that’s still cool -”
  819.  
  820. David was interrupted by the door opening forcefully by a young lioness who stormed inside. “This stupid fucking mask,” she said as she clawed the offending article off her small ears, revealing her tooth filled grimace which contrasted sharply with her pastel pink lips, which matched her equally pink blouse and light grey skirt. She stopped just inside the room when she looked up and caught sight of David. “Who the fuck is this, and why is he on my side of the room? Actually, you know what, I don’t care. Just tell your looser of a boyfriend to get his ass out of my chair. Actually, no, it’s your chair now, until it’s been sanitized.”
  821.  
  822. Awkwardly standing up under the harsh stare of the apex predator, David said to Tanya as he pointed to the door, “You know what, I’m going to go.”
  823.  
  824. It was Tanya’s roommate who responded. “Good. It might be too late for us not to catch the virus from your scruffy ass, but it’s not too late to avoid your loser germs.”
  825.  
  826. “Emily,” Tanya said harshly.
  827.  
  828. “What?” Emily asked, holding her paws up questioningly. “Look at him, he’s obviously not in a frat, and thus not worthy of our attention.” Turning toward David she wiggled her paw dismissively. “Now shoo, go back to whatever hole it was you came from.”
  829.  
  830. Picking up the vibe Emily was putting down, David turned sideways to squeeze by her. “Anyway, I’m gone,” he said in Tanya’s direction while maintaining eye contact with Emily.
  831.  
  832. “Bye! I’ll text you the details later,” Tanya called out after him.
  833.  
  834. “Sounds good.” As he scuttled past Emily and just before heading out the door, he said over his shoulder, “By the way, I prefer tie-ie.”
  835.  
  836. The door was slammed shut behind him with a loud bang that reverberated up and down the concrete hallway. Far down the hall, near the door marked stairwell, a hippo’s head popped out of an open door and she narrowed her eyes when she caught sight of him. David gave her a nervous smile and a little wave as he walked to the elevators, manually forcing each awkward step under her ceaseless scrutiny.
  837.  
  838. A short elevator ride later and David was power walking through the dorm’s communal area and out the insecure security door. It was only after he’d reached the fresh air outside that he realized that he’d forgotten to put his mask on. Shrugging in uncaring acceptance, David decided to social distance himself as he leisurely meandered back home.
  839.  
  840. While he walked, he considered his options for dealing with living in a haunted house. Well, townhouse. Anyway, his once firm refusal to ever sleep in his own bed again had softened a bit, to the point where maybe he might be okay with it once the mattress had been blessed by both a young priest and an old priest. In the meantime, the couch wasn’t all that far removed from his bedroom, so it probably wouldn’t take too long for the ghost to follow him downstairs. Besides which, the slump in the couch played havoc on his back if he slept on it for too long.
  841.  
  842. He didn’t feel like he was sick with the coof, but he could be asymptomatic. In which case he really didn’t want to go home and kill his parents by accident. But maybe he could self quarantine in the garage for a couple of weeks. It was unfortunate that he was an only child and that half his extended family lived on the other side of the country, while the other half lived on the opposite coast, so crashing with one of his less virusy susceptible family members wasn’t much of an option. There was the family’s summer cabin that was fairly isolated, but it was a couple of states away and David was currently sans ride of his own. The closest, and most expedient option for resting his head, outside the couch, was crashing at Dan’s. Usually Dan’s acerbic personality would cause friction between him and David if they were under the same roof for more than a couple of days, but with Dan away visiting his parents, David had carte blanche to appropriate his much more luxurious couch until either Tanya and her friends sent whatever was haunting him packing, or he came up with a new plan.
  843.  
  844. Coming to his resolution to avail himself of Dan’s standing hospitality, David found himself crossing the familiar desolation that was the parking lot for his apartment complex. Ahead, next to the stairs leading up to his apartment, he could see Becky’s bike parked.
  845.  
  846. As he drew closer, his stomach turned for some reason and he felt his heart begin to beat faster. By the time he’d reached the stairs, his palms were sweaty and has he mounted the steps, his feet slowed themselves, slower and slower as he got closer to the top, until he was standing still on the landing in front of his door. For several long seconds he occupied himself by reveling in the warm feeling of the sun against his skin as he stared long and hard at the tarnished brass knob of his front door.
  847.  
  848. Chiding himself for his uncharacteristic reluctance to return home, David forced himself to walk across the cement landing and quickly open his door. There, sitting on his couch, her hands in her lap, was Becky. She’d been watching something on TV, but as David opened the door, her hears perked in his direction and he could hear her tail thumping rapidly against the couch cushions.
  849.  
  850. Seeing her sitting there, dressed in a pale blue sweater and tight pair of cream capris that accentuated her figure, smiling at him in welcome, David felt a cold spike of terror shred through his guts.
  851.  
  852.  
  853. <TO BE CONTINUED>
  854.  
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