What happened to this place…?
The grey clouds blanketed the sun, stopping its warm rays from pouring from the sky; instead casting an eerie gloom over the town. It was easy to recognize the chilled October breeze as it blew shriveled up leaves along the pavement and wrestled with Robyn’s golden locks of hair, sending a violent chill up her spine. She tugged the hood of her sweatshirt over her head, hoping to conserve a bit of heat, and listened to the unsettling silence.
Not a soul was in sight.
Silver tinsel still hung on display windows and Christmas lights were draped over the edge of roofs, the bulbs of which were long since burnt out. How long had all of this been here? Better yet - why wasn’t it taken down as soon as the holiday season passed?
With an uncertain stride, she crossed the empty street, puzzled beyond her wildest dreams. She didn’t understand. This place was always so lively, there were people bustling around, even during the night. Yet no one showed their face. Was there an evacuation she hadn’t been informed about?
Her mother had moved away shortly after Robyn did, but it was assumed that she was still in contact with old friends; surely she would have told her if there was some kind of disaster that forced all of the residents of Crystalwood to leave suddenly. Maybe she didn’t know either.
Peering through one of the glass panes of the familiar coffee house, she saw an unoccupied building, shadows leaking inside due to the lack of sunlight. “Creepy,” she mumbled, continuing on her way and simultaneously checking other stores and restaurants for a single person, only to fail. There weren’t even any stray cats strolling about. Worry surfaced in her mind: should she have been here? Was it dangerous? Was there a fatal substance drifting through the air that wasn’t supposed to be inhaled?
She reached into her pocket to grab her phone and contact an Uber, wishing she’d have brought her own car instead. It would take a little while for one to reach such a secluded part of the country again. If only she’d have asked her original driver to wait for a few minutes to make sure she didn’t need to return home sooner than expected.
The wind carried an extraordinarily shrill shriek through the atmosphere; alarmed, she stepped out onto a nearby curb to inspect, firstly thinking it erupted from a broken tornado siren but didn’t see anything unusual. She covered her ears as it grew louder, closer, and squinted, in search of the source. There was nothing that made such an ungodly racket when she lived here, not that she could recall. Unfortunately, she wasn’t gifted much time to consider it, as she caught sight of a distant figure that was steadily approaching, details obscured by a tattered, black cloak. It almost appeared to be levitating, rather than using its legs, and she drew the connection quickly; this was the initiator of the noise. That much was obvious.
Both intrigued and unnerved, she leaned against the corner of the supermarket, ensuring she was temporarily hidden from the view of that thing. Silence once again filled the area, and it urged her to steal a subtle glance at the Grim-reaper-like entity. An unanticipated sensation of imminent peril crashed into her like a tow truck, and she sucked in a panicked breath, spinning on her heel and darting from whence she came as fast as her shaky legs could manage.
She skidded to an abrupt halt, wrenched open the door to the barber’s shop, and dove inside, slamming it shut behind her. “O-oh my God…” was all she could gasp out, sliding into a sitting position beside the door. Breath hitched and heart thrumming furiously within her chest, she attempted to rationalize the situation. What was it? Did it intend to cause harm? The chances of that were likely, considering its mysterious exterior and her intuition screaming at her that something was wrong.
Is that why everybody’s gone…? Releasing a tremulous exhale, she hesitantly craned her neck backward to glimpse through the dust-shrouded window and get a better look at that creature. Now that it was in proximity to her, she took notice of its towering height; it had to be at least seven feet tall.
“How am I gonna get outta here?” she wondered verbally, hopeful that voicing the question would provide her an answer. She could only pray that the frightening anomaly didn’t smell her, hear her, or simply sense her presence, and would keep walking until it disappeared, therefore enabling her to escape while she feasibly could. Another fear-inducing, monstrous screech flooded her ears, and she collapsed to the floor, trying to make herself as small as possible in the case, by some chance, it spotted her meekly huddled behind the glass. Fuzziness enveloped her mind, and she whimpered, wondering how long such a peculiar side effect would last.
As the demonic howls died down, a different sound became apparent; the shallow thudding of shoes as they moved across tiled flooring, along with quiet pants. She shifted her gaze up and across the room, confused. The last thing she expected was for someone to come barreling through the door that connected this area to a clothes store and stumble to their knees, staring at the wooden ground and not yet noticing her.
His hair hung down in front of his face, disheveled and dripping with sweat, despite the bitter temperature. She tilted her head, uncertain if she should alert him of her presence. He appeared exhausted, petrified. After a moment, she made her decision and parted her lips. “Hello?”
His head snapped up and green eyes expanded with surprise as they landed on her humbled form. She immediately recognized his face, even in the blueish darkness, and crawled toward him to shorten the distance.
“Kory!” He sprung forward and pressed his hand to her mouth in order to silence her words, glimpsing warily outside.
She didn’t struggle in his grasp, knowing she’d accidentally exclaimed the comment, rather than murmured it as she planned. “What are you doing here?” he asked, lowering his head until it was next to hers so she’d understand his hushed voice. “Why’d you come back?”
She gently pried his hand away and spoke, matching his tone to avoid gaining unwanted attention. “I wanted to see you guys again. I missed you.”
“Well, you made a massive mistake.”
Her heart clenched regretfully. “What is that thing?”
He sighed in relief when the creature was no longer directly on the other side of the wall and met her concerned gaze. “I don’t know, it just showed up one day last December. Everyone that it couldn’t kill managed to either flee or barricade themselves in the church while they waited for help.”
“...Kill?” It felt like her stomach dropped at that moment, concluding that many of her friends and neighbors that she held dear were dead. He frowned, expression softening as he pulled her into a fond hug.
“I know, I’m sorry. It’s too powerful to fight off. We all just have to try to avoid being visible when it’s around.”
“Are there still people here?” The sentence was muffled by his chest, though he acknowledged it nonetheless, and tightened his grip.
“Barely. The food stored in the back lasted us longer than we expected, but it’s almost gone. And, we’ve lost…several, that didn’t have the endurance to survive like that.” Salty droplets formed in her eyes. “So I came out here to find help, or at least, return with something useful. I haven’t had much luck so far.”
What was she supposed to say? This entire situation was stunning, and not nicely so - perhaps he was right. Perhaps it was a mistake repaying this town a visit. However, now that she was here, she felt obligated to do something about it. Help in whatever way she could - this was her childhood home, after all.
She drew back, examining the dirt smeared across his skin and his thin face - much more delicate than it should have been; no doubt a result of malnourishment. It also looked as if his hair hadn’t been cut in months. “Kory, how do we get rid of it?”
“Don’t ya think we’d have done that already if anyone knew how?” She flinched at his harsh tone, blowing a bubble into her cheek timidly. He exhaled through his nose and shook his head. “Sorry, but no. We’ve tried luring it somewhere else, shooting it, scaring it away. Nothing’s worked.”
They both shoved their palms against their ears to block out the piercing shriek that emitted from the creature lurking on the streets, meeting each other’s eyes with distressed expressions.
“It does that like clockwork,” Kory mentioned quietly after it ceased and they could, once again, converse without difficulty. “I don’t know why. It’s like it’s calling out for something.”
“There aren’t others though, right?”
He wiped the sweat away from his forehead. “Not that I know of. I’m not even sure why it’s here. All it does is wander aimlessly.”
“Doesn’t it attack people?”
“Well, yeah, but not if it can’t see them. When it does…things get pretty brutal.”
She cocked her head to the side, morbid curiosity getting the better of her. Judging by its outward appearance, she wouldn’t have guessed it would be the type to pounce and savagely rip its victim apart - then again, she was, for the larger portion, clueless about this entire situation, so she shouldn’t be assuming anything based on face value.
He read her emotions like a book and shifted his eyes to the opposite wall for a brief moment to collect his bearings. “Um…it kinda captures whoever happens to get in front of it in a trance of sorts, then for, like, five seconds, they look really scared but…but unable to express it. I mean, you can see the fear in their eyes, like they’re being forced to hold in screams of terror. Then they…they just turn into a heap of dust and crumble, and it sucks in the particles that are left. Like a vacuum.”
Offering the explanation brings him great anguish, that much is clear, and her hand finds his shoulder to supply a bit of solace. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like, experiencing something so…awful. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. It’s fine.” It was as if he was trying to assure himself of that very thing without actually believing it was true. “You’re here now. We can leave.” Cautiously, he rose, bringing her along with him. “Where’s your car?”
“I…didn’t drive one?” Feeling like an unprepared idiot, she crossed her arms over her chest to generate warmth. “I took an Uber…”
“B-but it’s fine!” She pulled her phone from her pocket and showed it to him. “I can just call another one and we’ll be outta here before dark.”
“Robyn, you can’t.”
He snatched the cellular object from her grasp and pressed the power button, but it failed to light up with the indication that it was alert and ready to be used. “Because that thing sucks the life source out of anything. Even batteries. That’s why none of us have been able to contact anyone for help. All of the radios and phones are dead.”
The shattering of a glass jar as it slid off of its shelf prompted both of them to turn the other way and stagger through the door, eager to recover a safer area to resume shelter in, as this one had been invaded. With trembling breaths, Kory crouched behind an abandoned truck, and she copied the action, trusting his lead.
“What do we do?” It was said as no more than a low whisper as she heard the shop door automatically close at a forgiving pace, even though they slammed it open in their rush to exit.
He opened his mouth to form a response, though fell silent, his tired eyes ascending and stopping somewhere above her head, where his pupils shrunk and his already fair complexion became paler. Fright bubbled in her chest and the task of checking behind her suddenly seemed impossible.
She observed the glisten of fresh tears in his eyes, on the brink of cascading down his cheeks but was not allowed to. Like he had been trapped by invisible chains. Acting on raw instinct, she dove forward, throwing her arms around his idle frame and trying to block his view of what she knew for certain was behind her. He didn’t respond, but it let out a high-pitched scream; she screamed back in objection.
A gust of wind swept through her hair before the world around her stilled and she could no longer feel Kory in her embrace. Mind dripping with numbness, her own heavy breaths were soon the only thing she could make out as her eyes squeezed shut, not having the courage to face the living nightmare, even as it was so close to her.
Thoughts were no longer coherent as the inescapable intrusion captivated her consciousness. So she simply curled into a defeated ball, brushing her body against the cold metal of the vehicle, feeling too unwell to even attempt to run.
It would have been too late anyway. She knew that.