Come For Me – by ROBERT KOSTANCZUK

                                                  Come For Me                                   

 

That wretched woman! There she was — bent over and frail. She seemed twisted at mid-body. She had to be uncomfortable, perhaps in pain. But I could not discern what she looked like. Her head appeared to be covered in something. Bandages? … perhaps a sack — the kind they use when executing someone. She was under the stairway of a worn, three-level apartment building.

Vacant lots sandwiched the foreboding structure that almost seemed to slant slightly to one side.

I glimpsed her as I walked home down Deacon Street on a frigid winter’s day. Dusk was descending. My mistake was returning to that forsaken building to make sure I had really seen what I thought I saw. Something told me I’d regret checking again. But I couldn’t help it as I walked back a few steps and peered down the walkway. A glaze of ice on the ground shimmered under a full moon that was gradually growing brighter.

Then, that strangeness came into view: An elderly woman was slightly hunched over in a flowing gown of some sort. Her thin body jerked forward, yet she did not move a step. It was almost as if she was bound at the waist by an invisible chain that tethered her down. She turned to look directly at me. I was no more than 20 feet away.

Her mouth appeared to be open wide, as if in agony. The lower jaw drooped below the material that encased her head. Her eyes could not be seen. Without warning, this eerie lady emitted a tortured, guttural cry: “Come get me!” I jumped back. She bellowed again: “Come get me!”

The entity writhed in anguish. Her ashen mouth was contorted in a gaping yowl.

One last time came the frantic call: “Come get me!”

Did no one else hear this mournful wail? I looked around; all else was silent. I expected to see people peering out their apartment windows, but there was nothing. I quickly looked up and down the front sidewalk. No one was out.

                                                                 ***

How bizarre, I thought. A feeling of isolation engulfed me. I didn’t want to get involved, but had to, someone was in trouble. The feeling of guilt would torment me if I merely ran away. My view of the macabre visage was unimpeded because the front gate was swung open, offering me a clear view to the walkway’s end.

The creepy figure was now moaning. It was unintelligible utterances of apparent agony. Cautiously, slowly, I moved up the walkway. As I neared the woman, she seemed to take a step toward me, but went no farther, some type of restraint appeared to hold her back. Her withered left arm extended feebly out to me. The twilight hindered a focused appraisal of what I was seeing. Suddenly, something rattled behind me. I spun to the rear, and saw nothing. When I turned back, the woman was gone.

I even checked thoroughly under the stairway where I initially spotted her. Wet and weathered cardboard boxes could be seen. I gazed over them, to the side of them. The woman, or whatever it was, could no longer be seen.

It must have been an apparition, a result of my chronic fatigue.

I rationalized it that way; I’d been working hard on my novel. What I supposedly saw was, after all, too weird to be real. As I left, I kicked into some sort of bump.

The impedance at my feet stunned me. It was a pile of dead mice and rats, a large number of them bloodied, torn apart. How did this carnage occur? The apartment building was a little decrepit, but did not appear to be abandoned. The property was not in a wildly neglected state.

Still, there was a hole in the ground next to the pile of vermin. It was as wide as a sewer cover. I wanted to look down it, but panic halted the notion.

It was time to leave.

The last few preceding minutes had been so intense that I had forgotten how cold it was. I had not put on my gloves. Some of my fingertips had lost color — they were sickly pale, stiff, numb. I flexed them to revive blood flow. As I hurried home, I slid my gloves on. No work was done on my novel that night. The wind outside the den window whipped snow against the panes. Can snow be hard? It felt like frozen, hardened slag. It was time for sleep; I am 65, and overweight.

                                                                  ***                                                                     

The frightful experience drew energy from me. Fatigue reigned. But I played a while with a friend. One of my few joys is Bix, my 8-year-old dachshund. I have no children. I wish I did, but I don’t.

But Bix fills a gap. An older dog, to be sure; but he still likes to kick a small plastic ball around. We rolled the ball around for a few minutes in the den, but it was soon time to call it a day.

Bix, afflicted with arthritis, rested next to my bed, providing calmness. He had to be the most mild-mannered canine on Earth. After some fitful minutes, I managed to doze off before I felt movement on my bed. Through bleary eyes, I saw a hand, a little girl’s hand with stitches. I gasped. I audibly gasped. The girl’s hand clutched a stuffed animal. Was this a dream?

“Why didn’t you get my mother?” the forlorn child whispered.

She was sitting at my feet. Her teeth were rotted. She leaned into my face and spoke firmly: “Go get my mother, or they’ll take her to Hades.”

Her matted hair smelled foul. “The demons eat rodents … sometimes they kill them just for fun,” the visitor related lifelessly. She was so close, I could smell her acidic breath. It was prickly as it saturated my nostrils. I flew out of bed, quickly took several steps away from the bed and looked back.

The girl was gone.

I reeled; shook my head to throttle myself back to reality. It was clear to me, though, that the child I had just seen was no figment of my imagination. At the very least, it was a specter from another realm. I never really believed in ghosts. However, this moment in the night changed all that.

I dressed and headed for that apartment building where I had encountered the bizarre woman. I was crazed; I needed to confront the unholy site and make sense of everything. My heart pumped with manic speed. I strode briskly through the bitter night. The cold stung my nostrils.

Once at the apartment building, I took deep breaths and told myself there was nothing abnormal.

I prayed no one would see me creeping around this apartment building at such an hour. I saw no apparition of the mysterious woman. I couldn’t help her if I can’t see her. Why was I out here trying to help her? How on earth would I, could I, help her? My unworldly situation swam around my head. I was disoriented.

My focus returned when I spotted the mound of dead vermin, and the hole behind it. I looked up at apartment windows. Only dim light emanated from two or three. The other windows were pitch dark. I heard no noises coming from the units.

It almost seemed like the apartments were uninhabited. Nothing was stirring; no paranormal visions, nothing overtly odd. Just as I was blaming my entire surreal experience on an overactive imagination, a blur, to the side of me, caught my attention. Then, nothing.

Focusing on the cavity in the ground, I waited it out. In just a matter of seconds, an arm rose from the hole. It seemed to be a claw, actually. It felt around on the ground before grabbing a handful of the decaying mice and rats. I only saw three stubby fingers on that unearthly hand, which bore reptilian scales. The claw retreated into the hole. A sort of grunting wafted from below. In time, it grew louder. My head trembled as I looked into the void. Without warning, hazy light illuminated the head of the elderly woman.

“Why didn’t you come for me? Why didn’t you come for me?” she repeatedly lamented.

Claws dragged her deeper down. I leaned in, but only witnessed darkness. There was, though, a faint whimpering, which evolved into muffled barking. I stuck my head in the hole, and through the faintest light could make out my cherished dog, Bix. He was crying, yelping. The old woman was holding Bix in one arm. A vengeful smile flashed on her as she slid into the netherworld.

Bix was too far down, I couldn’t help.

A bird’s screech startled me. Instinctively, I turned in the direction of the sound. When I returned my attention to the hole, it was gone. The hole was gone! I desperately pawed at the dirt, it was now solid ground. For the love of God, the hole was gone! Insanity overtook me. I dug into the frozen dirt with my hands. I started to make a dent in the ground. Muffled yelps caused me stop and listen.

I heard the yelps from underground, my heart was breaking. I resumed digging into what was once an opening in the earth. There was a chance to get Bix back, I had to keep thinking that.

My fingers were getting scraped, they grew numb. I fumbled for my gloves in my deep coat pockets, but quickly returned to digging without them. I could no longer hear Bix.

My heart sank; grim resignation was replacing hysteria. The hole was solidly covered with hard ground and scatterings of small stones. A flash of hope shot through my brain: I would rush home and get a shovel from my garage. I needed a shovel to dig out the hole. There might still be hope for Bix. I didn’t want to scream for help or knock on doors for assistance; after all, I wasn’t sure if all of this was really happening.

                                                                  ***

I no longer trusted my own senses. I ran home through the stinging air. I was about to enter the backyard while on my way to the garage when I spotted a small shadow at the side door. It was low to the ground. I warily crept closer and discovered it was Bix.

It was Bix!

I hurried to grab him, to pick him up, to talk to him. Yes, talk to him. But he seemed oddly lifeless, detached. I gazed into the chocolate eyes that, previously, had always emanated a warmth, but this time, just saw emptiness. I could pick up those details because of a full moon. The night was brimming with a welcoming illumination. “How are ya buddy?” I asked Bix. He didn’t bark, but seemed to be merely looking past me. “You OK buddy?”

I was growing a little worried. I went inside with Bix. His coat was dusty and dotted with patches of dirt, but other than that, he appeared physically fine. After rinsing Bix off with soap and water, and making sure he was neither hungry nor thirsty, I placed him on his favorite pillow near my bed, and went to the den to gather my thoughts.

The room was soothing with its darkened wood and arched windows. I tried to mentally digest all I had been through. I breathed slowly, to relax. What had I seen poking out of the ground? Something like a lizard arm? It was scaly, a claw. I took a sip of hot chocolate. Then, it hit me.

The memory of a television program rushed into my consciousness.

I was watching it late one night on a cable channel. It was one of those countless paranormal series. The subject was reptoids, the show called them subterranean reptoids. This premise was made: An unknown population of reptilian creatures living underground in Southern California. A network of tunnels, a thriving, pulsating civilization of netherworld denizens.

Yet, I didn’t even live on the West Coast. The Midwest was home. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about the TV show I had seen about the below-surface labyrinth. A species of reptoids, reptile people, living basically undetected for centuries, even thousands of years, Imagine that! The show depicted a little girl whom her mother thought had an imaginary friend. The girl would ask her mother to make sandwiches for the friend: Peanut butter and jelly was a favorite. Mom always thought the girl was merely eating the sandwiches herself or nibbling on them and throwing the rest away.

Then one day, the mother decided to investigate a bit more. She peeked in the doorway of her daughter’s bedroom as the child held out a sandwich in front of an open cubbyhole door. At first, the mother smiled at the cuteness of it all. However, mom lurched backward upon seeing a hand jut out from the cramped storage space. It didn’t look human, it grabbed the sandwich.

The daughter was unfazed. The mother rushed into the room and pulled her child away from the cubbyhole. Ever so cautiously, the mother peered inside. It was pretty dark. The cubbyhole had a miniature door that rose to chest height. There was no light bulb. She noticed a small hole in the back wall of the cubbyhole that she had not been aware of before. Bending down and stepping inside, she gazed inside the hole.

Nothing. Just darkness.

Then the glint of an eye shot forth from the basketball-sized hole. The mother jumped back and gasped. The eye had a vertical slit. This was no round pupil, it was animal-like. The eye resembled a snake’s. It blinked slowly, as if calmly assessing this human in front of it. I’m not one for being easily shaken, but recounting that silly TV show in my mind was unnerving.

The claw that I saw in the hole outside the apartment building might have been a reptoid. I amazed myself — actually amazed myself — that I was seriously considering that possibility — a reptilian entity from the netherworld. Or else it was just a ghost, like the girl on my bed or the twisted, tortured woman under the stairwell. Whatever the truth was, it didn’t matter to me at this particular time. I was comfortably resigned to any possibility. I was tired, but in a mellow sense.

                                                                 ***

I decided to get out and take the short walk to Merv’s, the all-night diner I used as an informal oasis. Before leaving the house, I checked on Bix. He was asleep on the pillow, a well-worn throw pillow that was transferred from duty on the couch to service as a makeshift bed for a small canine.

There was no hunger prompting me to head for Merv’s. Rather, I needed to talk to someone. A waitress, Cheryl, was always a friendly, accommodating ear. She was slightly younger than me, with a healthy glow and positive attitude to match. I ordered coffee and a slice of apple pie.

We made small talk, but I soon had to tell her about my horrid experiences that day, even if I glossed over some details to avoid being viewed as insane or even sadly delusional. “The bottom line is, I lost my dog, and thought it had been dragged down a hole by someone, some thing,” I told her as she took a break and sat across from me in the booth. “I don’t know,” I continued. “Maybe I haven’t been getting enough sleep.”

Cheryl smiled an understanding smile. “That’s quite a tale,” she grinned. “Maybe it was a coyote or something like that, it was kind of dark; could have been a coyote or another dog that dragged Bix away.”

Anything was possible, I thought. The attempt at rational thought on Cheryl’s part was a breath of fresh air. I took another bite of pie. I opened up even more to Cheryl. “I just don’t comprehend the woman I think I saw; she kept saying she wanted me to come for her; could she have disappeared from my sight that quickly?” I asked, hoping Cheryl had one more nugget of wisdom to impart.

She thought a moment, then responded: “Have you been sleeping well lately? I hate to ask that, because if you haven’t, it can really affect how you see things, I know that from experience.”

I told her that it had recently been a rather dull period in my life. Out of boredom, I was staying up late. Gothic literature passed the time for me; Poe, Lovecraft, in particular. “Yeah, I guess I haven’t been getting all the sleep I need, that’s pretty certain,” I told Cheryl.

In totality, the strangeness that enveloped me ever since spotting the spooky woman was beginning to twist itself into a more acceptable and less frightening narrative. After thanking Cheryl for her sage advice, I stepped back into the early morning air. It was almost 3 a.m. I couldn’t help but wonder if guilt played a part in seeing the strange woman. She kept begging to come for her. Had I abandoned some woman in the past? Had I deserted someone? Is that why I created this weird lady? To punish myself? Did I dream her? The very thought made me panic. I didn’t want to go mad.

The claw I saw jutting out of the ground — that, I determined, was real. It was a lizard claw. Lizards are real. Might have been a big lizard, but it was a lizard, nonetheless. They were just a literal part of a mad series of events. That conclusion made me feel better.

                                                                       ***

As the radiant full moon lit my way, I recalled that I had once brushed off going to the drugstore to buy aspirin for my mother while I was still living with her. She told me she had a pretty bad headache. But I was busy cleaning out the garage. “I’ll get it tomorrow,” I told her. “Go lie down on the couch; it’ll go away.”

An hour or so later, I checked on her. “How’s your headache?” I asked, as she rested on the couch with her eyes closed. “It’s better, it’s better,” she replied softly. I wanted to believe her, so I did. Now, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that she may have responded that way to make me feel better, to not bother me anymore.

She died 15 years ago. I feel bad that I didn’t get her the aspirin right away. That was no way to treat a mother who actually worked as a scrubwoman to help make ends meet when my father deserted. Yes, a scrubwoman. She would get down on her hands and knees to scrub floors at the homes of several wealthier types. She even mopped floors and dusted at a funeral home. I was curt with her at times. Still felt bad about that. That type of brusqueness would often come when things were going badly for me at my teaching job.

I would take it out on her. I didn’t regret it so much at the time, but now it would burn guilt into my head. As I entered my house, the sudden flash of an image stabbed its way into the air in front of me. It was a close-up of a face — the face of the woman under the stairs. By God, it looked like my mother. But I quickly dismissed the thought and shed the image. I had to. It was too chilling. The cries of the woman under the stairwell replaced the image.

“Come get me!”

“Come get me!”

Was the ghostly figure my mother? Did my mother need help? No, not in the afterlife! How could that be? Did she want me to have a better relationship with her? Was she craving that?

No! It just couldn’t be. A sense of tiredness overcame me. I was really, really spent. I was glad; there would not be a restless night. Sleep would come with great haste.

There was such weariness in my body that I forgot to check one last time on Bix. I quickly drifted off to sleep. At some point during the night there was rustling on my bed. Still groggy, I rolled over to my left. There, just a few inches away, was Bix. The one clear thing I could make out was one of his eyes. It was large, black as coal, dead.

I could not speak. The heavy, slow panting of Bix was all I heard. In the eye, I saw an image of the strange woman, bent over forward, beckoning me with her arm. Asking me to come. She waved her arm frantically as if imploring me to approach, to help. Bix’s head seemed grotesquely bigger. The eye throbbed. I could not turn away.

Eventually, I ran out of the bedroom. In the ensuing days I came to the ugly realization that Bix had changed for the worse, maybe forever. He barely ate. Those chocolate eyes that used to be so warm and endearing were now pure night and searing.

Day after day, Bix would just sit up straight and stare at me intensely, with a hard focus. The one eye remained dead, with a blurry thin film covering it. The other eye would roam up and down, sometimes sideways at a maddeningly slow pace. Bix would often come to the den and look at me. At night, he regularly sat at the side of the bed for a while, and watched me. Just stare, that is essentially all he did.

Early one morning in late winter, I entered my den to read. Without turning on a light, I reached for a collection of Emily Dickinson poetry to ease into sleep because I could not nod off. It was 2:45 a.m. A full moon shone through the huge arched window behind my desk. In a corner of the room — tucked into a recess by childhood rocking horse — was Bix. But he was not alone. As I approached to get a better look in the dimness, a shadow that hovered above him came into view.

It was that girl I had seen on my bed. She was kneeling over Bix, petting his head. She looked blankly up at me. She was real. She may have been spectral, but she was real. I had called her forth, Subconsciously, I conjured her up. She was the daughter I never had. So I created her. And there she was in my den — in the deep of the early morning hours.

A hint of a smile started to ever so slowly stretch across her cheeks. She wore a ragged sleeping gown. I stood silently. For a few seconds, all was deathly quiet. Things would never be the same. That feeling descended like weights on my shoulders. It pressed itself into me. My past — my regrets and mistakes from the past — were meshing with the here and now. Everything was becoming one. Everything was becoming very final.

Then, without raising his head from the floor, Bix growled. The sound steadily grew into an eerie snarl. Resting on his stomach, Bix’s back started to heave, as if his breathing was accelerating — becoming more agitated. He then snapped his head up, and growled loudly at me through clenched jaws.

Bix almost never growled.

Almost never.

    ***

                                     13620013_1910404082519737_2908274483781072439_n                      

Robert Kostanczuk is a freelance newspaper and features writer who is a former full-time entertainment reporter for the Post-Tribune of northwest Indiana. His short story “Safe Haven For Nathan” was published in “Homicide Lullabies: A Collection of Adult Horror Stories” (2016; Severance Publications Ltd.). He received an honorable mention in the June 2014 short story writing contest presented by the online site Chilling Tales for Dark Nights. He also was a semifinalist in the 2013 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize competition offered by Ruminate Magazine.

Find him on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/bob.kostanczuk.5

 

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