(Written in 1997)
This was not the first time he had been there, by any call. Steve had been there on many occasions, his back pressed against the cold concrete, his breathing short, the last rays of the dying sunlight peering through a small greasy hole in the window.
This was not the first time, and it probably wouldn’t be the last, so why did it feel so different? The fear that gripped his stomach was of a different flavor than it normally was. It normally had a clarity to it, a refined yet exhilirating stench of freedom clenched within imprisonment.
This was his hiding place, not from any particular evil, but simply from the aggregate nuisances of the universe. Nobody could find him here, deep in the bowels of the basement, behind the heating duct. Even the maintenance man only came down here when something was broken; otherwise, the only living creatures to take an interest in it were the spiders that spun their webs around his head.
Here Steve could press against the concrete, sensing the radon pervading his skin, feeling the toxins of an unhealthy world seeping up through the floor and into his Oxfords, inhaling the stale damp mustiness. The world was rotting, but at least this place was honest about it, emanating that rot in every air molecule.
But all the same, this time it felt different. There was a new kind of fear now, one that reached beyond the stench and slipped down into his soul. It was like a premonition. He could feel the shadow stalking him; he could see its fangs, its reptilian skin, its sinews… its eyes glinted in the halflight of dusk.
Long nights had he spent as a child, eyes pulled open, staring at the ceiling. Little Stevie had been afraid to turn his head, knowing full well the creature that awaited him. It waited and waited for him, wanting to snatch him up and devour him, body and soul.
He never turned his head. He never knew when it would strike, or if it would ever strike. The torment had been unbearable, and many nights he feared that it was the torment that the creature was living off of, not the anticipation of his flesh. To eat Stevie, that would be a quick flash of fulfillment and then, nothing. To torment Stevie, well, the creature could live on that sustenance for decades.
And it had. Even late into his teens, Steven had been kept awake with night terrors, torments of visions of that reptilian beast that had long abandoned his cohort’s dreams. Steven was a peculiar prey, and a particularly tasty one, and the creature had had no desire to move on.
Finally, one night when he was 16, Steven turned his head. It had not been to look; he would never have dared to do such a thing deliberately. No, there had been a loud noise in the hall — just a book falling inexplicably from a shelf, but it had startled Steven out of his obsessive watch on the ceiling, and he turned his head.
Instantly, terror of the beast crept back into him, but it was too late. He would finally stare his tormentor down, and it would be over. Eye contact would be made, and the creature would swoop down and devour him. In one short flash of pain and ecstacy, the decades old nightmare would be over. O why had he been distracted, why had he turned his head, even if only for that brief second?
But there had been nothing. The reptile skin, which Steven could describe in such detail that one could hear the texture of the cold, dry flesh in his voice; the burning eyes, which bore into his heart and reflected his own agonized face upon their corneas; the stagnant breath, which filled his lungs with the dull throbbing mortification of death — where were they?
An empty room greeted him.
That had been the last that he’d thought of his tormentor. It became little more than a phantasm collapsed within the harsh chill of reality. As years went by, it faded farther and farther into his memories until it all but disappeared entirely.
Now, after all these years — how many years had it really been? — it was back. Steve could feel it, waiting for him, its back pressed up against his as it sought to fight through the concrete that separated Steven from the rich cold humus behind the wall.
How long had it been following him, trying to track him down after having lost his scent so many years ago? Steve’s heart caught heavily in his chest and a sweat broke out on his forehead. This was his hiding place, the only place in the world that he felt truly secure, and now from the Great Beyond, from the stagnant reaches of the Underworld, the lizard beast that had tormented him all those years of his youth had tracked him down and pinned him against the wall.
He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. Instantly, the face that had been missing from his psyche appeared on the insides of his eyelids, in perfect 3D, gnashing its teeth and grinding his bones.
He tried to open his eyes, but fear kept them shut. As terrifying as the image in his mind was, he was afraid that the reality would be even more terrifying. Even now, he could feel its breath upon his face, and smell the rot within its mouth.
Something grazed his skin, and he pulled his arm back. He pushed against the corner of the wall, trying to make himself smaller, trying to shrink into his own body, but his muscles resisted.
He felt his skin being brushed again, and he shrunk back, yelping but keeping his eyes shut tightly. He could see it, licking its lips, prodding him — what a tasty morsel he’d become, now that the anxieties of adulthood had so completely permeated his being.
He shivered and pressed tighter up against the concrete. The coarseness of the wall scratched his skin, but he paid it little mind. The pain was a small sacrifice if he could avoid a bloody fate.
Why? His mind kept asking that over and over. What had he done that brought upon him such a merciless fate? It wasn’t fair that here, in the safest of all places in the Universe, his childhood daemon had come to eviscerate him, after all this time. Why?
Something pressed against him, pressing firmer into his flesh. He pressed his eyelids closed, but they began to resist his efforts, creeping open ever so slightly as his curiosity began to overwhelm him. Something was poking him, decidedly and deliberately, and as much as he feared that thing, or what he thought it was, how long could he run from it?
He opened his eyes, his breath holding still in his lungs.
Reptilian eyes, burning fire and wretchedness, stared into his. They burned with the intense repulsiveness that they had burned so many times in his dreams.
His heart burst in his ears, and he squeezed his eyes shut. So many years had he run, hiding from this terror, and now, here he was, face to face with his own nocturnal spectre.
His fingers clawed into the concrete as he tried to dig through the concrete wall. He had to escape, somehow, any way that was available to him. But the concrete would not give, and he could sense his fingers being bloodied.
Blood: all the worse for him. Surely this creature would smell the blood, and would stir its appetite with its sweet saltiness.
He slid down against the wall and cried. He wanted to scream, but his traitorous throat had turned against him. He banged his head against the concrete, trying to shake this demon from his mind.
All those years, all that watching, watching… watching… watching… why wouldn’t it leave him alone?
He felt a claw on his shoulder. Why was it doing this? Why wouldn’t it just eat him already? Was the joy of tormenting him so great that it was willing to go hungry just to feed upon his fear?
The voice was rough and gutteral, rumbling out of the filthy mouth and spewing upon him. The voice distracted him just enough, and he looked up. The creature’s eyes still blazed with fury.
He pressed his eyes closed again and covered his ears. Never before had it spoken to him — was he even more mad than he had been as a child, now?
“Steve,” it spoke again, and despite its gutteral rumble, the voice had a soothing softness to it, a tenderness that confused him.
With slow trepidation, he opened his eyes a third time and looked up at it, cowering deep into his corner.
The creature looked at him with sad eyes. Steve furrowed his brows, confused by this reaction. He looked closely at it, and it looked away from him, looking at the ground.
Steve swallowed, his dry throat parched from terror. His voice cracked and wavered, but still he was able to talk. “I don’t understand.”
The silence crept in then, and Steve realized how truly silent it was here in the basement. The ventilation fan rumbled like a steam engine, but except for its deafening monotony, there was no sound at all.
“If I’d ever revealed myself before, would you have listened?” The voice was meticulously articulate, even a touch erudite. “Would you have believed me?”
Steve’s mind danced in confusion. What chicanery was this? What was the vicious creature talking about? “I don’t understand,” he repeated.
“No,” the creature said. “You wouldn’t understand, would you?” It sighed. “and yet, here you are, in my den.”
Steve blinked and uncurled slightly out of his fetal position. “Your den?”
The creature nodded. “It’s good to remember, Steve, that not all guardian angels have wings.”
Sadly, resignedly, it turned and walked away.