She wasnâ€™t stupid. Taylor knew the apartment wasnâ€™t the best. It was far from it. A third floor, one bedroom apartment, facing the railroad tracks, was anything but the best, but she didnâ€™t need the constant reminders from her mother. Neither of parents could understand why she moved out and they probably never would.
The move had been anything but smooth. Her two friends bailed on her, so she had done it all on her own, with her trusty Toyota Corolla. Originally she planned on riding the bus or her bike to and from work, but eighteen blocks stood between her and the bus line and her bike was stolen the second night she moved in. The super had told her it was safe to leave her bike in the downstairs hallway, but heâ€™d been wrong.
As if that wasnâ€™t bad enough, the thief broke the bell sheâ€™d had on every bike since she was five. Why was that necessary? Sheâ€™d put the pieces in a sandwich bag and stowed it in one of the kitchen drawers missing a handle. Taylor wasnâ€™t sure what she was going to do with them exactly. It wasnâ€™t like she was going to be able to fix it. They were beyond any amount of duct tape or super glue, but she couldnâ€™t leave them all over the hallway.
Walking up the steps, making yet another trip between her car and the apartment, she heard someone cussing on the landing.
â€œMorning Taylor,â€ her neighbor, Mr. Eastland said as he fumbled with his keys.
â€œMr. Eastland, how are you today?â€ she asked, wondering if she should help him with his key.
â€œBe better if I could get this damn lock to open.â€
She didnâ€™t think the lock was the problem. His hands had bad tremors and his key kept skittering around the faceplate.
â€œCan I give you a hand?â€ she asked, adjusting her back pack on her shoulder.
He paused for a moment, before turning to her and saying, â€œYes, please. My hands arenâ€™t so good anymore.â€
â€œSometimes itâ€™s hard to get them to open even for me, Mr. Eastland.â€
â€œThanks for saying that, but I know my hands are for shit these days. Thanks Taylor.â€
â€œNo problem. Talk to you later,â€ she said, as she unlocked her apartment and went inside.
It was still an incredible feeling when she walked into her apartment. It was hers, all of it. Well, not really hers, she was just renting it, but it felt like it was.
Taking stock of her apartment, her eyes looked at the chipped paint of the wall, showing four different colors. It made her wonder how many years were behind that paint. The cracks in the ceiling looked like spider webs, branching and stretching outward to every corner. Bits of peeling paint tried to escape, but still held fast.
The stove only had one burner that worked, which was perfectly fine with her and the dishwasher door had to be held closed with a bungie cord, but at least it worked. She liked to think of this has her starter apartment. Some people bought starter homes, why couldnâ€™t this be a starter apartment?
Her phone rang. Picking it up, she realized it was her mother.
She wandered over to the window, but quickly turned away when she realized that Rubio was across the courtyard, just like he always was, staring at her. When he found out sheâ€™d moved in, he immediately tried inviting himself over for any number of stupid reasons. She knew he just wanted to get in her pants and that wasnâ€™t happening.
â€œAre you still there?â€ her mom asked.
â€œYes, mom. Sorry, I was putting some things away.â€
â€œOh. Do you have everything you need?â€
Taylor sighed loudly.
â€œIâ€™m just worried about you, thatâ€™s all.â€
â€œMom, Iâ€™m perfectly capable of surviving on my own. You know like buy my own food and pay bills and even cook the food. Iâ€™m not an invalid.â€
She could hear her mom shift the phone to her other ear.
â€œI know youâ€™re a very capable young lady.â€
Lady? What was this the 1950â€™s?
â€œThen donâ€™t worry so much, okay?â€
â€œItâ€™s a motherâ€™s right to worry about her kids. I donâ€™t want you to get into any trouble. Youâ€™re living in a pretty rough neighborhood. Why just last night they reported a big drug bust and your father said heâ€™d read about a murder just a block away from you.â€
Her fingers traced the outline of the tattoo on the outside of her calf, the skin still a little raised and inflamed. It was a small bird breaking free of a bramble bush. Sheâ€™d gotten it when she moved out to celebrate.
Wonder what mom would think of that?
â€œMurders happen everywhere mom. Remember Mrs. Rowan tried to kill Mr. Rowan just three doors down, mom.â€
â€œThat was the alcohol. Sheâ€™s much better now.â€
Good for her.
â€œIâ€™m going to get off here, mom.â€
Apparently not hearing her, she listened as her mom said, â€œYour dad wants me to remind you about having the super check the furnace. Heâ€™s worried about it giving off too much carbon monoxide. Heâ€™s picked up one of those sensor things for-.â€
â€œ-you. It just runs off of a 9 volt battery.â€
â€œI already have one. I picked it up yesterday.â€
â€œDid you al-?â€
â€œOkay, well dad was just worried about it,â€ her mom said.
Someone knocked on her door. She didnâ€™t want to go answer it. Taylor knew who it was. She grabbed a handful of hair and tugged a bit. It was a childhood habit.
â€œWas that your door?â€
She closed her eyes and answered, â€œYes, mom.â€
â€œWell, arenâ€™t you going to answer it?â€
â€œI wasnâ€™t going to.â€
â€œMom, please. Iâ€™m old enough to decide when to answer the door.â€
â€œOkay, okay. Donâ€™t forget about the furnace.â€
â€œI wonâ€™t. I have to go, mom.â€
There was silence filled with judgment.
â€œOkay. Love you. Bye.â€
She carefully walked up to the peephole and looked through it. Rubio was there, just like she knew he would be, leaning against the wall in front of her door. He had an unlit cigarette tucked behind his ear, and toothpick dancing around in his mouth, his long hair looked unwashed and greasy.
Taylor had no intention of opening the door.
The door was locked and she wasnâ€™t worried about him getting in, but she couldnâ€™t stay inside all day. Taylor had to be at work in a couple of hours, which reminded her she needed to shower.
The blessed shower.
That was the one thing that did work and one thing she was forever thankful for. It was always hot and had tons of water pressure. She loved taking long showers, letting the heat soothe her aches away, filling the bathroom with the smell of cherry blossoms. It had become a little bit of a sanctuary. She was able to close out most of the sounds from the passing trains and all of the noise from her neighbors.
Reaching behind the curtain, she turned on the water. A small squeak sounded as the water started to flow. She let it run for a few moments as she undressed, clothes falling to the floor.
Stepping into the shower, she dipped her head into the water and smiled. She lingered for quite a while letting the water spill over her as she shed the grimy layers the day coated her with. Scented suds and hot water made her whole again. After a few moments, she turned off the water. The shower head dripped a few times just like it always did and she realized she was standing in water. It was just above her ankle.
The tub wasnâ€™t draining.
She first thought the loofah had fallen from the cute little shelf she hung over the shower head and blocked the drain. It was still in its place. Grabbing the towel off the rack, she dabbed her face dry and squeezed handfuls of her hair with it for a few moments before putting it back. She bent over and ran her fingers, beneath the sudsy water, obscuring the drain.
Dragging her fingers across the drain, she felt something come free in her grasp and then heard the water begin to drain. She looked at her hand and realized there was some of her hair and what looked like fingernail sized white shavings. They were curled and, as she pinched them between her fingers, they were pliant and flexed.
What the heck were these things?
They mustâ€™ve come from somewhere. As she looked at her feet, another one fell into the tub startling her. She looked up and frowned. Across the ceiling, hanging down from some of the cracks were bits of peeling paint. The steam mustâ€™ve loosened them.
She got herself as together as she could. And, although she wasnâ€™t altogether happy with what looked back at her from the mirror, she headed out. Twice she had to come back up the stairs, once for her sunglassesâ€”there was no way she was able to drive in the bright sunshine without themâ€”and once for her car keys. Thankfully, she didnâ€™t see Rubio either time, which was a minor miracle.
She saw that as a good sign.
However, as she got in her car, almost blistering her hand on the seatbelt as she buckled up, she noticed the note under her windshield wiper. She wasnâ€™t about to get out of the car, so instead, she turned on the wipers. It lifted it up to the edge of the windshield and she reached out the window and plucked it from under the wiper.
She was so bad ass.
The almost nonexistent air conditioning flowed through the car as she unfolded the paper and read the single sentence.
Donâ€™t talk to my man no more.
She turned the note over, thinking there was more. There had to be, right? But, there wasnâ€™t. What the hell was this?
Since sheâ€™d moved in a little more than a month ago, Taylor had talked to exactly four men. The super, who was practically handicapped, her neighbor across the hall, who was always smoking dope out on his balcony and unconscious most of the time, the elderly Mr. Leland, and that winner, Rubio. She knew Rubio didnâ€™t have a girl. He was always hanging out with a few rough looking guys that drove low riders. She didnâ€™t think Mr. Leland was married and probably lived alone. The pot head never had girls over, just the same group of skeezy looking guys. The super was divorced, his wife lived in New Mexico or something with her sister.
Who wouldâ€™ve left that crazy note?
Her eyes snapped open, the room dark. Something made her wake up, but she couldnâ€™t figure out what it was. Looking at her clock, sighing at the time, she listened carefully. A random thought that Rubio was at her door, trying to get in, bubbled up in her mind, but she quickly dismissed that idea. He wasnâ€™t that stupid. Besides that wasnâ€™t his style.
Then the rumble sounded, gentle thunder sorting the clouds in the night sky. To her, it sounded so strange. It wasnâ€™t like any thunder sheâ€™d heard before. Taylorâ€™s hand was on the way to the lamp, when the lick of lightning behind her makeshift towel curtain warned of the approaching storm. Dancing drops started to hit her window, the sound soothing. More thunder rumbled, this time sounding much closer, as the rain picked up its tapping against the glass. Even with the thunder, Taylor drifted off to sleep with the smattering of drops a cadence to her dreams.
Stretching, as her iPhone woke her, she realized the sun wasnâ€™t very bright. She wondered if it was still raining. Taylor yawned as she pulled the covers aside, hearing something ratting in the folds of the comforter. Drawing it back across the bed, she realized there were more of the paint flecks dotting the comforter just like in the bathroom.
This time there was no steam to loosen the bits of paint from the ceiling. Taylor wondered if the thunder had shaken the building enough to knock them free. Looking up, she noticed a few more still hanging from the ceiling, along the cracks. Sheâ€™d have to call the super and ask him to paint it. A fresh coat of paint would do wonders to brighten the apartment.
After taking her shower and picking another half dozen of the paint shavings from the drain again, she headed to work. She dialed the superâ€™s number as she walked to her car.
Oh, no. She quickly disconnected the call.
â€œHey, Rubio. How are you?â€
â€œSo much better now that Iâ€™m talking to this angel I know. I havenâ€™t seen you around much.â€
â€œIâ€™ve been really busy.â€
He pulled the cigarette from behind his ear and lit it, blowing smoke upward, away from her face.
â€œReally? Iâ€™ve seen your car in the lot quite a bit.â€
That made an icicle fall from the ceiling of her heart.
â€œAre you stalking me?â€ she asked, frowning at him, trying to give him her best bitch face. It didnâ€™t work.
â€œThere isnâ€™t much to look at here to keep my attention, you know, except you. So, was I watching for you? Yes. Was I watching you? Yes. Am I stalking you? Hell no girl. I just want to get with you.â€
Rolling her eyes, she said, â€œWhat Iâ€™m doing, and when, is none of your business. Iâ€™m not interested in you, Rubio. Not interested at all. Got it?â€
He tilted his head and nodded. She didnâ€™t much like the way he was looking at her, and she definitely didnâ€™t like the way the sunlight seemed lost in his eyes. They were no longer the blue of clear skies, but rather the gray of pressed steel. Unlocking her car, she climbed in, tossing her purse to the passenger seat and left Rubio standing in the parking lot watching her leave. Her hands didnâ€™t stop shaking until she pulled into work.
â€œOh, come on girl, no matter how creepy he seems, you have to be digging the attention. I know you are.â€
Tracey had been her closest friend since fifth grade. She always had the knack for cutting through the bullshit and spelling it out. Theyâ€™d worked together at the Furniture World for almost four years. The job didnâ€™t pay well at all, but the hours worked out for her and she got to work with her best friend.
â€œIâ€™m not like you, ya ho,â€ Tracey said, smiling as she sat on the stool behind the counter of the
â€œWell, which one of us has had a weekend with four different guys on four separate dates?â€
â€œI love that you call them dates. Youâ€™re so cute,â€ Tracey said, teasing her and poking her in the arm. â€œThey were just hook ups. Not dates.â€
â€œOh, excuse me,â€ Taylor said, laughing, still hugging her legs as she sat on the couch of the furniture store. In all her time working here, sheâ€™d only sold one. Tracey hadnâ€™t fared much better.
â€œNothing wrong with having sex,â€ Tracey said.
â€œOkay, Dr. Ruth.â€
â€œOh that old woman is nasty,â€ her friend said, wrinkling up her nose. â€œWonder how did she did her research?â€
â€œWow, thatâ€™s gross,â€ Taylor managed as they laughed together. â€œI donâ€™t have a problem with sex.â€
â€œOther than youâ€™re not having any.â€
Responding with her middle finger, and a sarcastic sneer, Taylor said, â€œThat aside, Iâ€™m not hooking up with Rubio. Thatâ€™s not even in the realm of possibility. Iâ€™m pretty sure his hair is overdue for an oil change, which makes me wonder what else on him needs an oil change if you know what I mean.â€
â€œOne too many times at the free clinic kind of change?â€
â€œBingo,â€ she said, tapping the tip of her nose.
â€œSay no more.â€
â€œI could get his number for you,â€ Taylor said, smiling, â€œIâ€™m sure heâ€™d be interested.â€
â€œIâ€™m not interested in your discard pile,â€ Tracey said, sticking her tongue, â€œthank you very much.â€
Two customers came in, one looking for end tables and the other looking for a loveseat. Although they didnâ€™t buy anything it did help the last hour of the day go by quickly.
After her shift was over she had back to her apartment. Driving up the street, she looked at her apartment complex parking lot, hoping to come in under Rubioâ€™s radar. Taylor didnâ€™t want to waste what little energy she had left on him. She managed to park and run up the steps without seeing any sign of the fair Rubio.
Locking the door behind her, Taylor tossed her keys down on the table and kicked off her shoes. She didnâ€™t even eat anything. Instead, she threw off her clothes and walked into the shower. Letting it run, steam wiping a damp hand across the mirror, the curtain billowing outward, she stepped into the hot water.
As she dipped her head backward, she heard a low rumble. She didnâ€™t care if it was raining or not. She was staying in for the night and she liked the sound of rain against the windows. Another few rumbles sounded and it brought up the memory of something her mom told her as a child. Her mom had said you shouldnâ€™t shower in a thunderstorm because you could be struck by lightning. Even when she was little, Taylor thought it was a ridiculous superstition. If her mom knew she was in the shower while it was thundering outside, sheâ€™d have a fit.
The drain backed up again. She reached down to fish out the pieces of paint that had flaked off again. Looking up, she noticed that there were far more pronounced cracks than she remembered, and quite a bit more paint peeling along the edges of the cracks. It made her wonder if the roof was leaking into the attic area above her. Maybe thatâ€™s why they cracks were getting worse.
Walking into the bedroom, wrapping the towel around her, she noticed the cracks seemed worse in here too. As she picked up the flakes on her bed, she stopped, seeing the bright sunshine through the bedroom window.
Where was the storm?
Taylor walked to her front window and looked at the sky, wondering where the storm clouds were. Sheâ€™d heard thunder, but the sky was filled with puffy bits of clouds and blue sky. Something caught her eye, someone standing near her car.
It was Rubio.
He waved to her and smiled. A skanky looking girl walked up and put an arm around his waist, her free hand giving he a one finger salute.
The rumble sounded again, causing more flakes to fall from the ceiling. One of them landed on her bare shoulder, a pinprick of ice. It was so cold. Picking it off of her skin, she looked at it. Something about it wasnâ€™t the same as the ones from the shower.
Another rumble made her look up and she froze. The ceiling cracks were moving in sea of motion, swirling and sweeping into one another. She stared, a scream caught in her throat, as the movement spun across the ceiling again.
The cracks werenâ€™t cracks after all.
Taylor realized they were folds of skin. A flat serpent like creature was curling itself across the ocean of her ceiling, knocking off bits of its skin with the motion.
The flakes were scales.
She opened her mouth to scream, but it was already too late. The thing dropped from above, thin and nearly transparent, it unhinged its jaw and hungrily fumbled its way around her head and then along the length of her body, until she was completely devoured. With a few gurgles and several snaps, the thing flattened her body out with sickening precision before carefully returning to its lair across the ceiling.
The knock on the door was followed by a voice asking, â€œTaylor? I know youâ€™re there. Look, that girl donâ€™t mean nothing to me. I saw you wave to me. You know you look fine girl. Come on now. Are you really gonna make me stay out here and not even answer your door? Come on girl.â€
He kept knocking