Alice was no stranger to fear.
She’d been on a first-name basis with it since the early days of her childhood when her death-visions first started. Fear was a sinister old friend, tiptoeing around in the back alleys of her mind and waiting for its chance to grab her attention. At moments like this, it would hopscotch around her rational thoughts and stab her in the lungs.
Alice clamped a hand over her mouth to muffle the sound of her breathing. She stared in disbelief as the dead man moved slowly up the walkway toward her front door. What was he doing here? How did he find her? The creature inside the dead-man knew that she’d seen it, and she had suspected it would be showing up again, but she didn’t think it would be so soon. It didn’t even seem real. Like it was the tail end of some dream that she was already waking from, lingering in the still empty chambers of her mind. But this was not a dream. It was happening, and Alice knew she had to do something quick before the dead man found her. Her mind raced with thoughts, none of them good, and every single one led to the same desperate conclusion: she had to get out of there.
But how could she?
Grandma and Royce were just on the other side of the front door. She hated to think what a creature like this, one that could take control of a dead person and walk him around her neighborhood, could do to her family. She couldn’t leave. Not yet. She could not abandon her family to this monster no matter how scared she was.
The dead man approached her front door at a slow walk, moving with far too much grace and silence for a man that size. His face remained in shadow until he neared the house and the light from the front windows cast a ghostly highlight across the dark skin of his face. A trick of the pale lamplight gave the man the appearance of what he actually was: a corpse strolling up the walkway. His eyes came into view and Alice saw them moving, shifting from left to right, up and down, scanning his surroundings as though searching for something. Probably for her.
Alice lowered herself onto her back once more as quietly as she could, flattening herself against the shingles and praying the dead-man wouldn’t hear the rapid pounding of her heart. The man was almost at her front door. Clearly, he planned to ring the bell. Alice knew she should do something to try and stop him. To keep the dead-man and the thing inside him away from Grandma and Royce. But she didn’t know what to do.
Something. She needed to try something.
But Alice couldn’t move. Fear had crept up behind her and skewered her through the heart, pinning her to the roof and rendering paralyzed. The only movement she could manage was to tremble uncontrollably.
But her ears were working fine, and Alice had no problem hearing the dead man’s gentle footsteps stop outside the door of her home and the doorbell ring its muffled inquiry from inside the walls of her house. To Alice the bell sounded like the tolling of a death-march, forecasting something every bit as horrible and inevitable as death itself. Then she heard the deadbolt click. The door opened and her brother said, “Yeah? Can I help you?”
“Royce.” Alice whispered her brother’s name into the hollow evening like a plea. Her voice was a husk of ragged terror, and a new anger rose to join the fear. Anger at the dead-man for threatening her family, and anger at herself for doing nothing to protect them.
The dead man’s crushed-gravestone voice rose from below her.
“Good evening young man. I wonder, can you tell me if Alice Tomkins lives here?”
It knew her name!
Of course it did. Her school records would have been readily available in the principal’s office. All the dead-man would have needed to do was convince Mr. Berringer to look them up in his massive filing cabinets, and he would have access to her name, address, phone number, everything. Apparently, that was no problem for this creature. What else did she expect? This thing could reanimate and take possession of a human corpse; how difficult could it be to manipulate a mediocre high school principal? If she wasn’t frozen in place, Alice would have kicked herself. She should have seen this coming.
Royce hadn’t yet responded and Alice could almost feel her brother’s hesitation. They’d grown up in the same neighborhoods around the same people. Royce had lived through just as much hardship as Alice, and he was even savvier than she was when it came to recognizing trouble when he saw it.
“Sorry mister,” Royce said, his voice taking on the dead-pan I-don’t-give-a-shit tone that all teenagers were experts at. “Ain’t no Alice here. Maybe try the next block or something.”
Alice could have kissed her brother. She closed her eyes and sighed, a bit of relief washing in over the top of her fear. Royce might get on her nerves sometimes with his know-it-all smirk, little-brother teasing, and cocky teenage-boy attitude, but he always had her back when it counted.
“My mistake then,” The dean man said. “Sorry to have bothered you.”
Alice could hear the shark-like grin in the dead man’s voice, and she knew he wasn’t fooled by Royce’s misdirection. He knew Alice was here.
“Yeah, no problem,” Royce said. “Nice suit, bro.”
The door closed and the lock slid into place. Alice waited for the sound of the dead man’s footsteps retreating toward his car, but nothing came. The surface of the roof slowly cooled beneath her as quiet returned to claim the neighborhood. Alice began to shiver. The seconds ticked by, silence building until it became an almost audible sensation that she could feel as a slight pressure against her skin and her eardrums. Why was he just standing there? Did he know she was on the roof? Maybe he’d managed to sneak back to his car without her hearing him.
Either way, she couldn’t stay on the roof all night.
Alice waited as long as she could stand it, then tested her limbs and found that she could move again. The fear was still present, but its paralyzing effects had faded, leaving her with a stiff mobility, like a posable action figure with sand in its joints. In slow, wooden movements, she raised herself onto one elbow again and peered over the edge of the roof.
The dead-man stared up at her, his black eyes locking with hers like wicked invitations to embrace her own death. Terror clutched her heart again, strangling the breath from her lungs.
Scrambling up the surface of the roof, she vaulted over the ridgeline and skittered down the other side without looking back. She hit the edge of the roof at a slide and somehow managed to snag the gutter with one hand, slowing her fall as she dropped to the sparse grass of her backyard. She landed wrong in the darkness and felt something give in her ankle. Her knee hit the dirt and she caught the rest of her weight on her elbow, jarring her shoulder and snapping her head to the side. Alice was up in a second. Ignoring the pain, she limped across her backyard and onto the property of the neighbor behind her house. She found the next street and crossed that as well, moving through yards and gaining distance from her home and the dead-man behind her.
Alice ran three more blocks that way, tearing through lawns without stopping until she crossed a final street and reached the local park. Here she slowed, allowing her heaving lungs to breathe and wincing as she limped on her twisted ankle. She swiveled her head as she walked, throwing her gaze in all directions and searching for any sign that the dead-man might be following her.
There was nothing. Just the empty park, with its grassy stretches broken by sporadic picnic tables and offset on one end by a gathering of little league baseball fields. Alice headed toward the fields, her wits returning as her panic faded.
Her thoughts strayed back to the house where she’d left Grandma and Royce alone with an evil, body-snatching creature right outside. She prayed the dead-man had followed her. After all, it was Alice he’d come for, and he’d seen her on the roof. The creature would want to come after her, so Grandma and Royce were probably safe. She hoped.
She also hoped that the dead-man had no way of tracking her through the neighborhood. She could have run in any direction for all it knew, and if it chose to drive the sedan and hunt for her, she’d hear it coming from a mile away. But she couldn’t count on that. She had to be smart. Think, Alice, she told herself. You have to assume it’s coming for you.
She reached the nearest baseball field and started across at a half jog, favoring her injured ankle. The light from a random streetlight cast lengthy late-night shadows across the dusty field, stretching the world into a dark caricature of itself, a twisted reflection in a funhouse mirror.
Use your head, Alice, she thought. That thing is after you. What do you do now?
Get off the street.
She had to get indoors somewhere. Preferably in a place that the dead-man would never think to look for her. But where could she go?
Alice never had a chance to think of an answer before the shadows in front of her began to move. Two long, thin shadows that stretched across her path bent and parted to make room for a third, larger shadow. The bigger shadow grew from the side of the ball field, forming itself into a shape that vaguely resembled a slender body with hunched shoulders, a narrow head, and grotesquely long arms.
Alice’s heart was a jackhammer in her chest as she searched around her for the source of the shadow. Nothing had changed. She looked in the direction of the streetlight and saw nothing that could possibly have created it. But the shadow was there, and it continued to grow, blocking her path entirely.
Alice had stopped moving. She leaned back on her heels, eyes widening until they stung and hands once again finding their familiar tremor. She watched in horror as the moving shadow in front of her began to rise from the ground.
It rose in liquid silence, flowing up from the ground to take up space in the empty night. Its hunched shoulders came up first, followed by the shape of a gaunt, wavering head, and finally, tree branch arms thrusting high into the dark space above the baseball field. Each arm ended with a gathering of too many stick-like fingers that tapered to wicked looking claws.
Alice had no time to process what she saw. Without hesitation, the living shadow attacked, easily reaching across the space, its arm growing and lengthening before her eyes until a clawed hand rained down on her in a single deadly swipe.
Alice screamed in her mind, and quite possibly out loud. Her reason disappeared as terror overwhelmed her senses. She threw her body backward, her arms instinctively launching up to cover her head. Ugly flashes of pain sliced along both forearms as she fell to her back in the dirt. Fear gave her speed and she managed to spin back to her feet just as another swipe from the shadow creature raked through the dirt behind her.
She sprinted back the other direction, and the manic thought flew through her head that if Royce could see her, he’d probably tease her for doing a marvelous impression of a frightened rabbit. It would make her smile and roll her eyes, and he would wink at her with that infuriating grin on his face. She was glad Royce was safe back at the house, far away from this insanity. If she survived the next few minutes, she might have to think about being nicer to her brother. Maybe.
Alice fled in terror for the second time that night.