Kyle threw himself into an alley, no longer caring whether he soiled his jacket. Fuck, fuck, fuck! His shoulder bounced badly off the brick wall and he collapsed too soon, hastily tucking his legs in after him. He froze, holding his breath, ignoring the cold puddle under his hip, the stench of the trash bags a yard away. All sensory engines redirected full power to his ears.
The voice rang out, “Yoo-hoo!”
Are you shitting me? Who even says yoo-hoo? Leaning against the wall, he pushed himself up to a nearly standing position. There had to be another exit. The bags had to come from somewhere. Cautiously he stepped into the alley’s recesses, his sneakers picking their way around more puddles, broken bottles, decaying food.
The crest of each mound of bags marked a door, sure, but every door was steel, heavy, and locked. The first one, Kyle only tried the handle and found it unyielding. The second, he knocked on gingerly, as though afraid to wake the occupants. He actually banged on the third, yelling, demanding to be let in, but they were steadfast in their silence.
A shadow flooded over the alley. “Is that you? Are you down there?” The voice, already loud, was getting louder and clearer. Above, the blue sky was overtaken by a large, dark mass fringed with glowing tendrils.
Stifling a scream, Kyle backtracked and charged out of the alley, into the street. The fence gave him no choice. He burst into the open, wheeling around at the skidding brakes of a cyclist.
“Watch it, asshole!” the young commuter called out brightly, overestimating himself as a threat. He sped off into a thin crowd, some of whom gaped at Kyle. “There he is, there’s that man!” “Should someone call the cops?” “Get out of his way!” “He’s got something to do with this.” A tall, burly man in overalls stepped forward, spreading his arms.
Across from the alley, a battered white door opened and some dude in stiff black clothes stepped out, a cigarette hanging from his lips. Kyle screamed like a madman, stunning the due into falling to the side. Ducking the large man’s grasp, he threw himself into the doorway. “Hey,” said the dude.
His sneakers struck white hexagonal tiles, slick with soap and blood. Kyle’s body seized as he struggled to stay upright, and he skidding with a clang into a deep, steel double-sink. Big chunks of cold, red meat piled upon the table across from him, and beside this was a door with a woman in it. She was short, stout, and angry. “What are you doing back here? The bathrooms are to the right, down the stairs!” She swatted at him as he lurched past, banging down the shallow wooden steps.
He found himself in the center of a dank room, lit by a single, bare bulb hanging from a cord. So trite. There were a couple rusted metal hooks in the ceiling, nasty-looking things. The walls were painted raspberry, chipping in the corners with water damage, and a mirror in a chintz frame hung before him, over a reclaimed vintage half-table with fake flowers. In the mirror, he saw a thin line of red running down his cheek.
Two flimsy doors flanked him: the left said Ladies in gold adhesive, and the right, hanging on its hinges, said Gents. The wall with the ladies’ room door looked like it was coated pressboard, where everything else was plaster over old-school cinder block. Beside him was a steel locker, half-open, filled with generic cleaning supplies.
Kyle chuckled, gasping for breath. The basement was a stroke of luck. It got him off the streets, away from those stupid people. Away from that… whatever that was. What was it? It was impossible. He slumped against the wall by the men’s room and allowed himself to take inventory. His ankle smarted and burned, but it wasn’t twisted, thank God. His shoulder, however, the muscles were tightening with injury. He winced, rolling his arm gingerly until he was satisfied it wasn’t dislocated. That probably would’ve hurt worse. He stood up fully and took off his jacket to examine the damage. Stained all up the back, and the sleeve was torn all the way through.
Through the concrete ceiling and whatever constituted the floorboards, he heard a dull explosion grumbling and rolling around. Voices pealed, wordless tones of anguish and terror. Tables were being thrown around, footsteps trampled left, then right.
Her, again. “Are you in here? I can smell you in here. Why don’t you just come out? I’m not going to hurt you.”
His heart hammered in his chest. Now he was trapped in the basement! He tossed the jacket away and hugged the supply cabinet, as though dragging it before the stairs would block anything. Swearing at his stupidity, he looked up to see a black seam beside the painted pressboard that had been blocked by the locker. Fishing a lighter out of his pocket, he peered into the narrow channel. The plaster wall continued on, parallel to a cheaply constructed wall for the women’s room. More hooks ran down the ceiling here.
This place used to be a meat locker! They installed the bathroom after the fact. Kyle tore the pressboard away without resistance and jammed himself into the narrow passage, following defunct, cloth-wrapped electrical cords down the ceiling into the darkness, until he passed the perimeter of the women’s room and entered a larger space. His lighter showed a slightly wider corridor now, all plaster and dust. The chaos behind him grew muted as he followed this to a wooden door. It was latched, but without a padlock to hold it: he tugged it open, grinding it over decades of dirt, but successfully revealed a plaster staircase. With no other options, he climbed it.
Now he could hear sirens at the street level. The destruction was next door, and people in this building were scurrying around him. “What’s going on?” “Oh, my God! The restaurant’s gone! It’s just gone!” “I didn’t know we had a basement.” An elegant man was staring at Kyle.
“Well, you do,” he muttered, stalking off. He found himself in a theater, one that had been converted from a famous old bar. It made sense that a steakhouse and a bar would’ve had a service tunnel between them, he reasoned, dodging panicked people who were now heading for the hatch door he’d revealed.
Through the bay window on the front of this building, between scalloping piles of heavy velvet curtains, he saw a parked car caved in with a section of the restaurant. All pedestrians but two stragglers were gone, and these two stared behind them as they stumbled to the left.
“You’re very clever, I’ll give you that. Of course you would be: I couldn’t fall for a stupid man.” There was a loud boom, and he saw a gigantic Converse sneaker finish the job and flatten the wrecked car outside. He felt an urgency stab at his guts, and he wondered if he was going to shit himself. The black-and-white sneaker was roughly the size of the car, or what it had been; it lifted up, beyond view, and the car was nothing but fragmented red plastic and dark, leaking metal. “But listen, seriously: I’m going to find you, I think you know that. Why do you want to waste all this time exerting yourself, for nothing, when you could be with someone who cares about you?”
“Why aren’t the cops doing anything?” A tall woman, hefting a toddler on her hip, tried to peer out at the action on the street while being unwilling to expose herself in the window. She turned to him. “I called when it started, and they wouldn’t believe me. Now the lines are overloaded. Wait.” Her eyes narrowed and she stepped up to him. “Is that your blood? Are you the one she’s looking for?”
He was unsure what to say. The easiest thing in the world would have been to distract her with her own child. The chubby-cheeked toddler stared at Kyle vaguely, seemingly without a shred of concern. The woman, however, began to turn as though to call to the kitchen, her boy swaying in syncopation with his mother.
Kyle yelled, “Cops! There they are! Oh, thank God!” The mother blinked rapidly, caught between processes, and slowly wheeled to find the officers. There were none, of course, only clouds of dust and hazy silhouettes moving within them. When she turned back, Kyle had vanished.
He edged along the storefronts, hoping against hope that this… this monstrosity busied itself with areas it hadn’t been. Scowling, he sniffed his own armpit and then plucked at the shirt on his chest. What did he smell like?
“Anyone else might take this the wrong way,” sang the voice in basso profundo, fading and rising as her head swung like a klaxon. “But I know better. I know what’s meant to be, even if you don’t. What you need to do, though, is stop for a minute and think about how your actions could be misinterpreted by me. It’s kind of hurtful, right?” Incongruously girlish laughter rolled over the metropolitan area. “Don’t you have a heart? Just come out and show yourself, please. I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I can’t live without you.”
What did that even mean? This was crazy, this was nuts, this couldn’t be happening. Kyle stepped over a chunk of rubble and looked down the street: abandoned cars, empty streets, and a disorganized crowd. Whether they were collecting the injured or looting, he couldn’t tell, but he smoothed his hair with one hand and straightened up, walking toward them with false confidence.
A teenage girl struggled to haul a body out of a doorway. No one seemed to be helping her. “Hey, you want some help with that?” Kyle called out.
“It’s my dad, he fainted.” Far from concerned, she sounded irritated until she looked up at him. Her voice pierced the air: “It’s him! It’s him! Tell her!”
Kyle froze in his tracks as the crowd immediately perked up. Arms rose like iron rods, all drawn accusingly toward him, and a dozen voices called out in baleful cacophony.
“Aren’t you sweet! Look at all of my willing little helpers. Thanks, but I don’t need your help.” The lowing voice sounded amused. “I can smell him wherever he goes, it’s just that−” There was a pause, and then a deep snuffling echoed between the buildings. “Hold on, he’s close!” The black Converse returned, this time descending with precision in the center of the street, booming dully. With a cry, Kyle flung himself across the street and into another alley.
“Don’t run, please! You’re being silly. And you look hurt! Are you hurt? Let me take care of you.” There was another boom, and another sneaker blocked the outlet he’d entered. He gabbled to himself, leaping over detritus, throwing himself toward the column of light at the other end. “Why are you doing this to me? What have I ever done to give you reason to fear me? It doesn’t have to be like this!” He popped out of the alley and into another lane like the previous, with another crowd of people. This one, however, seemed to be slower on the uptake: an old man waved him over and placed his own blazer over Kyle’s shoulders, leading him away.
“Haven’t seen devastation like this since the Dominican Republic,” he rasped in Kyle’s ear. “Bad as that was, it would’ve been over in a minute if we were going up against her. What a world, eh?” Kyle only nodded as the man led him into a convenience store. “Now, let’s get you patched up.” The old man left him and doddered into an aisle marked First Aid.
Promptly, Kyle tore off down another aisle, throwing himself bodily against the emergency exit. He winced at the alarm he’d set off, and it inevitably summoned yet another thundering boom: doubtlessly another sneaker in front of the CVS. He skidded to a stop before a Dumpster, then climbed upon it and wrapped the blazer around his fist, smashing open a window now eye-level with himself. Laying the blazer over the frame, he hauled himself inside.
“I think you need to ask yourself what you’re really running away from.” Sadness filled the resonant voice in the sky. “It can’t possibly be me. What’s going through your mind, right now? Come on, talk to me, let me love you! We were meant to be! You’d understand if you only gave yourself to me.”
Now in someone’s personal office, Kyle slammed the Venetian blinds shut and peeked through them. A massive arm swiped through the lower atmosphere, fingers splayed. No—they were wriggling, dancing and excited, as a child’s might as they selected the next chocolate from a box of assorted sweets.
“I’ll never give up, so why don’t you spare everyone all this misery? You’re being awfully selfish. The crowd in the streets looks like they’re getting angrier. Here, climb up to a roof somewhere and I’ll rescue you, okay? I don’t know what these furious little people are going to do to you if they find you first. I’m your best bet to survive this.” Again with the laughter.
“For fuck’s sake!” He screamed despite himself and fled the room, alerting a lobby of people. They came at him, but the vintage lobby still bore working French doors. Kyle seized their antique, cut glass knobs, slammed them shut, and deadbolted them with the decorative skeleton key hanging in the keyhole. Unwilling to shatter the panes of lead crystal, they banged futilely at the doors as Kyle flipped them off and backed into a staircase.
Going up would only put him closer to the nightmare, but he knew that this office complex was connected by a private catwalk to the financial center next door. Having worked as a temp in most of these buildings during the early 2000s, Kyle had a more-than-sufficient mental map of downtown, and damned if it hadn’t finally come in handy.
“What are you doing here?” He didn’t even turn to look at the voice, as he pelted across an elegant black-and-white tiled floor past more private offices. He’d only spied the catwalk from the street level and guessed it had to be here somewhere. “You can’t be in here!” Motivated by the clatter of hard shoes behind him, he ran to a large door in stained oak. The brass knob resisted turning in his hand.
His pursuer caught up with him, an angry man with reddening jowls, packed into a tidy suit. “Get the fuck out. Don’t bring her here,” he growled, producing the key to open this barrier. Kyle thanked him, and the man made a threatening gesture at his back as Kyle’s sneakers trod a carpet reserved for very few.
The financial center was all brass and glass, and Kyle raced down a spiral staircase in its center. A wide shadow passed over the building’s skylight. Cursing, he spotted a cafe just across the street, and when the tremors in the ground paused, he raced for it.
“I told you, I can find him myself,” the voice pealed. “I was going there anyway.” Explosions worked their way up the street behind him. People screamed, hands clutched at his clothes as he fought his way to the back of the cafe, stumbling out the back door and into a parking lot.
There were three cars resting back here. Am I going to have to steal a car? The thought was wild, romantic, improbable. He’d always wanted to learn to hotwire a vehicle, and he knew it couldn’t as simple as they made it look in the movies. He’d read that somewhere, but he’d also read that he could jam an early-model car’s ignition with a screwdriver, but where−
Four huge fingers like telephone poles swung out of the sky, knocking the cars away like hollow plastic toys. They landed some distance away, out of Kyle’s sight. A crowd of people surrounding the parking lot pointed at him. He stepped backward, then turned and found himself facing three determined-looking people in the back door of the cafe. He feinted to the side but no one fell for it. “Listen, you’ve got to help me,” he started. A punkish-looking girl booted him hard in his chest and he stumbled into the open.
“No! Don’t do this! I need help!” He wheeled around and surveyed the crowd. There were gaps between the people, but there was nowhere he could run that they couldn’t close up. Why were they doing this? “Why are you doing this?” he screamed as an afterthought.
A slow, deep moan oozed over the rooftops. “There you are,” she said softly. “Oh, oh, there you are, at last.”
Kyle started toward the crowd, and they knotted up before him. He licked his lips, counting them, then thought better of it and looked the other way. They weren’t so far, now, and the exits were narrowing. Another shadow passed overhead. Too late, he looked up.
Her fingers spread around him like a sloppy cage. He screamed, leaping for the gap between her thumb and forefinger, but this was the easiest way for her to clutch him. He screamed, kicking his legs as her flesh clenched around them, restraining him. The pavement slowly fell, everything growing smaller and farther away as the air rushed over his ears.
“Oh, my beautiful little man,” she purred, deeply vibrating throughout his body. “Oh, my sweet little lover-man. Did you hurt yourself?”
With the simple twist of her wrist, he found himself lying in a broad, fleshy palm. Heat soaked immediately into his back and legs, in contrast to the wind that raced over him. There were no buildings around him at all. It was just open sky and a colossal, smiling face. Sunlight glowed in the tips of her hair like a holy fire, and thick, dark lips spread wider and wider, showing more and more teeth.
“You little scoundrel,” she was saying, raising him past her broad chest, bringing him closer to her face. “Oh, you caused me such trouble. But I’m not mad! I promise, I promise I’m not mad at you. You’re perfectly safe, I promise. Who could be mad at someone as beautiful as you? Come here.”
Her eyes, wet and shining, disappeared behind her puffing cheekbones as her lips spread and her jaws opened. Kyle shrieked, raising his arms to ward her off, hammered at the huge thumb that pinned him to her palm, kicked at the palm itself as that nose grew larger, that chin grew closer, and that mouth…
Her full, pillowy lips bunched up in a large, puckered ring, ramming into his little body over and over. They pulsed against him, smothering his face, plucking at his entire head. He pushed them away, and his arms slipped between them, running over the polished edges of her huge teeth. He kicked at her, and she chuckled through large, dark nostrils as she sucked his legs into her mouth. He lost a shoe, and the tip of her tongue was very active around his ankle and over his sole.
But she never bit at him. Kyle watched the face like a billboard, and it was only relieved, jubilant. Her mouth opened over and over, grabbing him, hugging him. Laughter boiled in the back of her throat. What was funny?
“My lover,” she babbled. “My sweet little lover-man.” Her voice shone like the sun as she buried him in kisses. She panted as she smooched him, her breath growing raspier and carrying little grunts, whimpers of a surprising daintiness for such a large woman. She clapped her palm to her face and pinned him there, moaning, suckling him right through his clothes as hot breath gusted down the back of his shirt.
What the fuck is going on, he thought, before the blood in his body churned and frothed and made all thought impossible.