Previously published in November of 2016 with The Violet Hour Press.
Maxine never looked up. They were hiding in the rafters.
In the mornings, she would find reels of rotten, grey skin on the stone floor near the edge of her bed. They watched her while she slept. She would wake up in the middle of the night and find fingers twisted in her hair. Their nails felt like knives, taking large swatches of her hair with them as they ran and giggled. Sometimes, she would find a discarded ring finger on her pillow, nail black and infected.
She never opened her eyes when she woke up in the night. Her nightmares told her what they looked like. Their eyes dark pinpricks and knotted hair tangled around impossibly long fingers. The nightmares showed her what they were. She didn’t need to look.
They hated sunlight, the reels of skin they left behind would turn into a downy ash come morning, but moonlight or candlelight wasn’t strong enough to keep them at bay. Her electric lamp would short circuit when they came near, throwing a cascade of sparks her way. She didn’t know how to protect herself from them.
She’d spent months researching monsters, trying to figure out what they were and how to kill them. Maxine spent thousands of dollars on ancient books and still had no answers. The closest thing she could come up with was a vampire. But she knew vampires didn’t exist. Even if they did, they didn’t shed pounds of skin and steal locks of hair.
It would be easier to burn her house down. If the fire didn’t kill them, the light of dawn would.
It was that train of thought that led her to this moment. A match in one hand and a jug of gasoline in the other. It was close to dawn, but still dark enough that she could hear their laboured breathing and the patter of drool dripping onto the floor.
Maxine’s feet dangled over the edge of the bed. She just needed to look up. It would lure them down from the rafters, she knew it would. Whenever she slept on her back, they got excited and restless in the hopes that she would make a mistake and open her eyes. But good soaking of gasoline as the sun rose, a lit match thrown just right, and her problems would be solved.
She just needed to look up. The one thing she swore she would never do.
Their hissing laughter burned like acid in her ears. She could hear each of their claws grate against the stone walls. Chips of wood coated the floor, speckles of brown among grey stone and flesh.
With a deep breath, Maxine looked.
There were hundreds of them. Coiled around the rafters like snakes made of oil. Shining black blood glimmered from patches missing skin. Their eyes, small pinpricks in misshapen human skulls, stared back at her. Their mouths hung loose and open, teeth rotted and worms wiggling in their gums. They laughed, shoved one another to get a better look at her.
Her blood ran cold.
They crept down the walls, limbs liquid as they leaked and trickled towards her. She had to wait for them to get close so she could soak as many of them as possible. It took minutes, each of them playing with her, tempting her to throw a little too soon. But she kept her composure as best she could, blood pounding in her head, and waited for the right moment to strike.
She flung the gasoline when they reached out and gently ran their clawed fingers along her toes. Maxine struggled to light a match, her hands shaking and the strip refusing to cooperate. The gasoline distracted them for a few moments, buying her the time she needed as red welts and sores from their touch burst across her bare feet. Flick after flick, match after match. They played with her, knowing she was going to fail. That they would finally get all the hair they wanted and more.
The match lit.
She threw it to the ground, wails of the creatures piercing her eardrums as she ran out of her bedroom. Maxine could hear their clawed feet skittering as they chased her, smell their burning flesh as dawn light flashed through her open windows. They weren’t going to stop chasing her, not after she set them on fire.
There wasn’t enough sun to keep them at bay.
The front door was just ahead of her, a few paces at least. She slammed into it, yanked the knob with all her strength. It was locked. Her hand was shaking too hard, she didn’t know if she could undo the bolt in time.
The back of her nightgown was on fire, the flames licking her skin and claws digging into the flesh of her back. The bolt flipped back, the door flung open against her weight.
It screamed on top of her as the light burned it and fine ash coated her skin. The flames on her back were smothered by her fall, skin blistered in a thousand places. Maxine’s chest heaved and she retched on her lawn. The wail of sirens popped into her senses.
Years. She spent years with those things, terrified to look up, and they were gone. She was finally free.