Streetlights passed overhead in metronomic rhythm—one, two, three, four—illuminating black upholstery—five, six, seven, eight—and white knuckles perched at the steering wheel’s upper crest—nine, ten, eleven, twelve…
Still, no matter what proof assured her she did move, Jamie felt no closer.
It had been so long since she’d last visited Alice at home that the memory of every right, left, right turn occurred to her with hardly the time to spin the wheel. A year ago this Christmas by her own measure, and only to pick up the USB drive she’d lent the younger girl for her Introductory Spanish final. Alice’s mom had been aghast that she wouldn’t stay for dinner, but she’d only come on her fifteen-minute break and wasn’t much a fan of spiral ham. Alice has told me so much about you, the elder had enthused with a toothy grin, but how could she, when her daughter knew so little already?
If she could’ve foretold Mrs. Marx’s struggles would claim her life by November, she liked to think she would’ve smiled a little brighter. Maybe spared a laugh. Come up with a better reply than, we don’t speak of you much.
She wouldn’t let that frigidity cloud any more cries for help. And after six weeks, three missed meetings, half a dozen calls sent to voicemail…Jamie knew it could be nothing but.
As the little houses and white picket fences of the suburbs turned to high apartment buildings and windows boarded up with wood planks, the streetlights thinned out, casting the sidewalks under darkness. Alice’s building looked much the same as all the others: about twenty stories high, red brick, and falling apart. Even from the ground, she could make out her window on the thirteenth floor by the duct tape holding the glass in frame. Dim light lived within.
Jamie frowned. “You can binge Netflix ‘til midnight but not pick up one phone call?” Surveying the teenagers—out too late for anything good—that watched her from the dark, she knew her new car wouldn’t be leaving this neighborhood unscathed. “You’d better be swinging up there, kid.”
Her stomach flipped. Maybe not swinging, but…bleeding…or crying. Something temporary.
She whispered a prayer for her Mustang as she threw herself from its front seat, locking the doors with a click of the remote in hand. Her coat caught on the heel of her boot—an unfortunate casualty of the office dress code. There hadn’t been time to change.
Unlike the buildings she’d acquainted herself with in Short Hills, there was no doorman or revolving door, or windows into a gleaming lobby—only a door, studded with chipping green paint beside a list of doorbells. Perhaps at one time they’d been used for unlocking the ancient door, but not anymore: a block of wood sat at its corner, propping it open.
Casting another look over her shoulder at the car, still well within view, Jamie appraised the worn slip of paper beside the number 1304: A. Marx. Her finger burned—six, seven, eight times—over the bell to the tune of a mechanical buzz.
“Come on, Alice,” she whined. This didn’t have to be a sleepover. If she could get a sniffled, Just a broken phone, Jamie. I’ll call you when I get a new one, she’d be home by one a.m. and back to work at seven.
A hope for naught. With every insistent buzz, she received no answer.
Jamie sighed. Whatever got stolen off her car, she would call it a win if she could still drive it after all this. The only thing worse than spending the night in this foul city would be staying for two.
The white light beyond the door blinded Jamie to a long hallway of nondescript doors. As her eyes adjusted, she picked out ripped wallpaper lining the walls, the stain of yellow along the ancient carpet, and garbage. Lots of garbage. From somewhere in the general vicinity of the elevator came moans that raised gooseflesh over her arms.
She darted for the stairs. Every cursed piece of gum and unidentified brown goo clung to her boot, but she shoved such trivialities away by the tenth floor in place of a baser need for oxygen. Her calves burned, arms aching to hold her up against the arm rail. By the time the thirteenth-floor landing approached, she’d already decided: if Alice was still alive, it was a temporary state. Jamie fully intended on pitching her out the window by night’s end.
Her fist against 1304’s door echoed down the hall. The upper floors, while at least devoid of the piss stains in the emerald carpets so prominent down below, didn’t get such an abundance of lightbulbs. These were the lower-watt kind, more of an amber than white and the one over Alice’s door had burned out. It had been burned out last year, too.
“Alice?” she hissed with another slam of her fist to the wood. She hissed when the door slipped a splinter into her pinky. “Ouch. Alice!” She kicked the door, to no answer. Forgetting all desire for quiet, she shouted, “Alice, open the door!”
She gripped the knob, waiting for the catch of the lock, but it turned easily, door swinging open without even the deadbolt’s interference.
Weird on a normal day, but, today, it raised every hair on her body. “A…Alice?”
The door groaned until it stopped short against the inner wall. Jamie stepped in, already entangled in a mess of Alice’s shoes strewn across the floor. Was that cause for concern? The last time she’d walked in, the place had been immaculate, but that had been Christmas…
On another step, she turned a corner into the living room to find a lamp, overturned. The hand-me-down sectional sat under a cover of its own snow-like innards and every pillow corpse lay empty across the floor. She crept in, picking at every little bit of fluff before she cast it to the floor. Alice didn’t lay within; rather; she’d stacked the cushions into a pile at the room’s center. The frame lay broken around it, sat up to wall the soft interior like a nest.
As Jamie stood, turning back toward the hall, she froze, meeting the wall that separated this room from the kitchen. It wasn’t the mess of canned spaghetti on the black and white tile that stopped her breath, or the sink, stacked high with pots, pans, plates, and half-eaten steak and other unidentified meats. Or even the fact that every cabinet’s white doors hung open.
It was the claw marks. Five, torn into the dry wall all the way to the pink insulation within.
“What?” she whispered, arm already half-outstretched to touch. At the first brush of jagged edges, she pulled it back to herself. Was this a joke? “Alice?”
No one answered, but, as she listened, she made out other sounds. Wet sounds, like the slurp of spaghetti.
That kid was fucking with her. What other reason could there be for this mess?
Nevertheless, she staggered ahead on feet that wanted nothing more than to turn back. This was an awful lot of work for a joke…
Water stained the hall carpet, product of a running toilet spilling across the floor. Beyond that, the bedroom door hung open, the only glow from the nearest building’s floodlight through the window.
The slurping grew as she edged closer, taking the doorway in both hands. Jamie leaned around the corner, fingers shaking, tongue dry around another call of Alice’s name.
The gleam of teeth.
Blood. So much blood.
A man lay across the floor, body limp and head tilted back in deep unconsciousness. The porcelain shards of a lamp glimmered around him, a very few embedded in his temple.
The face that looked up from the end of the stranger’s arm was at once familiar and completely unrecognizable. Its mouth, stained red by the hand it had detached from the man’s wrist, housed four rows of teeth like serrated blades. Its yellow eyes glowed, wide and hungry, as it met her gaze. The creature had to be over six feet tall, skin nearly green and scaly in patches across its cheeks.
Still, it was very clearly Alice. At least, it was trying to be.
The Alice Jamieknew didn’t make five feet and had most certainly never had more than one row of perfect teeth, as she liked to display in the headshots she badgered her for an opinion on with every impending casting call. The shock of blonde hair had gone uncombed but they looked like they had, at one time, been the curls usually so pristinely arranged around her pixie face.
Jamie didn’t breathe. There wasn’t time.
With a deep growl, those alien eyes narrowed, Alice’s new, thick legs coiling beneath her. In a single kick, she threw herself across the room, arms outstretched to wrap around Jamie’s shoulders.
Jamie shrieked. Dropped to her knees. Felt the air as Alice soared overhead.
The other girl hit the wall with an unholy crash, but she didn’t even hesitate to turn on Jamie, teeth bared and red and dirtied with the remnants of human flesh from its last snack. From her first step, Jamie threw herself into motion, taking off toward the front door on ankles buckling inward with every step.
The thing followed so close, Jamie could feel its every unsuccessful attempt to grab her shorn hair. As she neared the door, arms out to wrench it open and hopefully—hopefully—slip out before she got eaten, something like a knife dragged down the back of her neck, tearing her flesh open and turning her coat into nothing more than twin rags, sliding down her arms.
“Agh!” The pain was distraction enough. She hesitated for a mere instant with hand in mid-turn on the knob and pulling. It was all the time the creature needed to pin her against her only exit and slam it shut.
“A…Alice!” she shrieked, head smashing against the wood. Her ears rang, time slowing around her. Her words emerged as thick as the canned spaghetti. “Get off.”
The doppelganger pressed itself completely to her back, holding her in place with heavily muscled arms and legs. Its scales grated against the skin bared by her torn coat. Its tongue probed at the center of her back, trailing up the cut it had torn from her skin.
Jamie’s body shook, so small in the arms of a predator. Instinct bubbled up inside her like impending vomit, urging that she scratch, bite, run, something before death tore her throat open with the same talons it had ripped through the drywall. It gripped her around the arms, cold to the touch and tearing her flesh with every light touch.
As its head dipped, it breathed over her neck, tossing her hair into her face. She swallowed hard, unable to move, unable to inhale, unable to speak. It reared back, jaw coming down around her shoulder with a snarl that reverberated all the way into her chest.
Pain exploded from every conceivable corner. Like needles and rocks and ice and fire and something Jamie knew no one could have felt before. There would’ve been a word for it if such a pain had existed before this moment. There would be books about it. Classes. Dissertations and lectures and statues.
Her body went limp, falling against the creature as it tore the sleeve of her shirt and four rows of teeth’s worth of flesh away from her whole. She slipped away, landing face-first on the carpet, but the creature didn’t seem to care.
Jamie glanced at the door through the haze of tears building within her eyes. Escape was so close, within reach, but her shoulder screamed so loudly she felt it in her legs, her arms, her face. She couldn’t find her limbs in her muddled brain to move them.
It chewed her. Loudly. And when it swallowed, it reached for her again, flipping her onto her back so the world around her was only glowing yellow.
Jamie’s lip quivered. This was it. Death. “Alice…P…please?”
The beast stilled in its descent toward her throat. Eyes like liquid gold flickered, yellow, then gray, then yellow, and gray again. Alice’s face, green and scaly, cooled. Her jaw snapped shut, lip turning down into a frown.
Her new, monstrous mouth opened to reveal a single row of inhumanly sharp teeth. Rather than its deep bellow, Alice’s voice emerged, “Jamie?”
The world around her swirled, but Jamie managed the smallest smile. “Y…yes. Yes. It’s Jamie.”
Alice withdrew, standing stiff to look back over her shoulder at her bedroom door. A whimper like a wounded dog passed her thin lip. Her body clenched, clawed hands gripping at the sides of her head. “Go away,” she cried. “Please, go away.”
Jamie reached for her. Perhaps it was the blood freely pouring from her shoulder. Perhaps it was the last of her fear festering where sympathies she’d never had before lied. She no longer saw the creature of scales and claws and teeth, even if that was exactly what stood over her. She saw herself, standing with arms over her head, pleading that the voices go away.
Her fingers breezed over Alice’s knees.
In one moment, the Alice-beast stood over her with mouth drooling Jamie’s blood.
In the next, she was gone.