Published in the Morpheus Tales Urban Horror Special
The sirens shouldn’t have frightened Asil; the sound was no different tonight than the daily alarms that drifted to the fourteenth floor apartment from the city streets below, yet something about the reckless, urgent shrieks caused the hair on the back of her neck to dance. She made her way to the open window in the living room and slammed it shut. The sirens continued despite her action: four minutes, eight minutes, seventeen minutes, twenty-two minutes passed before the sound was abruptly silenced. The sudden quiet proved far more unsettling than the brash horns of the fire trucks and police cars. Now, Asil was left with nothing to analyze but her own thoughts, and she pictured her mother standing by the doorway, coat on, purse in hand.
When Carla Shaw left, she said she’d be back in an hour. Asil recalled marveling at her mother’s ability to appear as if she was gazing at her daughter, when in actuality, she had been staring just over Asil’s head.
She can’t even look at me, Asil remembered thinking. The idea had caused a hateful ache in her chest, and she couldn’t suppress her aggression: “Don’t pretend to care about leaving me alone. Just go already.”
Carla recoiled, as if her daughter’s words possessed the brute force of a thrown punch. Surprise and disgust curled her face into an ugly mask; sweat peppered her brow and one cheek twitched, pulling the right side of her mouth into a pseudo smile. Carla had one foot in the hallway when she stopped, turned back, and called out mockingly: “Don’t go anywhere.”
Asil had fantasized briefly of retrieving the glass paperweight from the foyer table and throwing it at her mother’s head, but she hadn’t the strength or mobility to enact such a cruel but satisfying punishment, so she’d simply watched her mother walk away.
That had happened two days ago.
Asil shook the memory away and turned her attention back to the window. The silence outside was short-lived, replaced by a cacophony of typical city sounds: people shouting, radios blaring, horns sounding. A native New Yorker, Asil considered the raucous symphony commonplace, but today was different. Like the sirens, the seemingly innocuous sounds of the city mildly repulsed her.
She opened the window and the restlessness of the sidewalk invaded the room. Asil shoved her face toward the windowpane, hoping for a clear view of the street, but was stopped by the metal window guards that clung like prison bars to the frame. Manhattan landlords required tenants living with a child younger than seven to keep the metal contraptions over each window. Asil had outgrown that stage of her life nine years ago, but her mother hadn’t noticed the progression.
A woman’s terrified scream caused Asil to jump; the mournful howl reminded her of the stray cats in heat that gathered in the alleyway behind the apartment building: it was primitive, bestial, and caused a sick, hard cramp in Asil’s gut. Something was happening out there, and her inability to understand the commotion taunted her. She studied the window guard; it could easily be take down with a Phillips-head screwdriver, and once she removed it, Asil could witness the disquieting racket firsthand.
Below, glass shattered and the murmur of voices increased to a panicked roar. Asil backed away and maneuvered through the living room headed for the kitchen, where a box of tools resided in a drawer next to the stove. Carla Shaw rarely touched such items; she left that duty to her daughter, who, at an early age, learned how to hang curtain rods and shelving, how to assemble small pieces of IKEA furniture, and most importantly, how to disassemble the bathroom doorknob when her mother barricaded herself inside with a bottle of OxyContin. Recalling the countless uses for the Phillips-head in the past, Asil wondered why she hadn’t taken the bars down sooner; they’d always made her feel like a prisoner.
As she settled herself in front of the window and poked the first screw with the tool, the noise from the street turned hostile; a child bawled in the distance while a man nearby shouted profanities and grunted repeatedly like a Tourette sufferer. Asil contemplated shutting the window, turning on the television, and ignoring the riot altogether, but before she made up her mind, three quick, hard rasps sounded at the front door. The screwdriver slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor.
“Hello?” The voice was hysterical, fearful—a woman’s voice. “Is anyone home? You have to leave the building. We have to get out of here!”
The woman threw her body against the door, and the collision of bone and wood triggered in Asil an unsettling sense of déjà vu. Uncertainty and fear trumped her previous curiosity—if something was going on outside, she was no longer sure she wanted to witness it.
“Is someone in there? You have to come out!”
The stranger’s words projected concern, yet there was something sinister in her tone. Asil glanced down at her bare arms; her hair stood on end.
“Who’s there?” she asked. “What do you want?”
The wooden barrier between Asil and the stranger trembled.
“Come out come out come out!” the woman shouted, her voice adopting a robotic, unfeeling intonation. “Comeoutcomeoutcomeout!”
The chant mutated into a high-pitched, hawk-like screech, and the door shuddered. For a brief, wild moment, Asil thought it would give under the woman’s weight, but as quickly as the stranger had morphed from concerned neighbor to maniacal intruder, she was gone.
The door was still, the hallway quiet.
Hot anxiety filled Asil’s chest, and she realized she’d been holding her breath since answering the woman’s frantic call. Several painful gulps of acidic saliva settled her erratic heartbeat, but the woman’s insensate chant still echoed in Asil’s mind: comeoutcomeoutcomeout!
What was happening?
Asil propelled herself toward the door, engaged the lock, and slipped the chain deadbolt into position. She wasn’t going out there—and no one was coming in.
As she stared at the door in terrified bewilderment, her mother’s cruel words taunted her: Don’t go anywhere.
Asil looked down at the second-hand wheelchair to which she was bound and started to cry.
The attack had been brutal—a senseless, tragic example of gang violence, according to the police. It happened in broad daylight, just one block from the public high school Asil attended in the safe, family-friendly neighborhood she’d lived her entire life. They’d come at her from behind—five, maybe six of them at once. She hadn’t seen their faces, but she’d felt every heartless punch and carnal, deliberate kick. They’d beat her within an inch of her life.
Seventy-four stitches held her face together; a cast on her left arm protected six fractures in her humerus, radius, and ulna. A spinal cord contusion ensured she would never walk again. But what truly frightened Asil was the mark her attackers had carved into her arm:
In the weeks since Asil’s attack, a dozen more like it had occurred throughout the five boroughs, only those victims, each with the nonsensical tattoo carved into the flesh of their forearms, were buried in fresh plots around the city.
Carla Shaw unraveled after the incident. Her decade-long addiction to prescription painkillers had already begun to devour her sanity, but Asil’s deformation sparked an unending descent into hateful lunacy. She made crude jokes about the stitches that crawled across Asil’s cheeks, poked the distended eyeball that jutted from her daughter’s bruised skull. But more disturbing than Carla’s heartless reaction to her daughter’s condition was the cold-blooded, unfeeling fury that festered in Asil’s heart. The feeling—she could only describe it as bloodlust—permeated her subconscious and spread like a virus. Each passing day, the sadistic venom that coursed through her body devoured what little self-control she had left.
Asil took a deep breath to stifle her tears and headed back to the window, determined to grab the screwdriver and finish the task. The tool had fallen just out of reach, so she positioned the finicky wheelchair and stretched for it. No luck. She sighed and let her aching torso relax in the chair. Outside, the cries from the street were drowned out by what sounded like unorganized construction work, and for the third time Asil wondered what the hell was going on. The question forced her to think of her mother: where had she gone? Had she witnessed the disorder outside?
Had she left Asil home alone on purpose?
Thoughts of Carla caused a vehement shudder of antipathy; Asil’s fists clenched and unclenched involuntarily, her heart stammered in her chest. The familiar furor that had been growing inside of her since the attack began to take hold, and she couldn’t contain an outburst. She gripped the window guard and tugged; the motion sent shock waves of white-hot pain through her weak, battered arms, but she attacked the inanimate object with all the strength she could muster. After a few moments of frenetic tugging, Asil’s arms fell limply to her sides; pain feasted on her fragile bones and blood rushed to her lacerated cheeks. She gave her limbs a few seconds to recover from her momentary hysteria before wheeling herself back to the kitchen, where she’d cleverly hidden from her mother a bottle of Percoset the doctor had prescribed. But as she rummaged around in the same drawer she housed the Phillips-head screwdriver, Asil realized her mother had beaten her again: the bottle was gone.
She closed her eyes and let her throbbing torso slump in the chair; her aching muscles slackened and a drowsy haze overtook her. The pandemonium outside faded as her mind slipped into unconsciousness.
When Asil opened her eyes, the apartment was pitch-black.
She groaned and straightened out in the seat; sharp agony clenched her left eyeball and her arms pulsated like open wounds. Asil scolded herself for napping in the chair before reaching up and flicking on the light. The sudden, abrasive glow of the overhead bulb caused her swollen eye to spasm, and she shielded her face from the irritating brilliance.
How long had she been asleep? An hour? Two?
Despite her aching joints, she launched herself toward the open window, determined to finish what she’d started. But as she approached the far-end of the room, Asil was chilled by the absolute quiet that surrounded her.
She parked herself by the window and held her breath.
Christ. Now what?
She shifted her weight to one end of the chair and bent her torso over the side. Her fingers still dangled an inch from the floor, the screwdriver just out of reach. She righted herself, planted her elbow on the armrest, and hoisted her body so the bottom of her rib cage rested on the padded bar. Then, she threw her chest toward the ground. A startled cry tore through clenched lips; flaming anguish consumed her, but her quaking fingers closed around the Phillips-head.
She carefully righted herself and relaxed her suffering body. She longed to rest, but her erratic breath only accentuated the eerie silence that had settled over the city. She maneuvered herself in front of the window, activated the chair’s brake, and gripped the tool in her right hand. Looking out into the darkened night, Asil’s plan was immediately forgotten.
Not a single light brightened the sky.
At least ten or fifteen high-rise apartment buildings surrounded her own complex, and in sixteen years, she had only once been greeted by complete and total blackness: during the blackout of 2003. Was it possible the city was experiencing another such event? she wondered, and then scoffed at her own stupidity. Her lights were on—
Her lights were on.
If something had transpired earlier to cause the city’s sudden, self-imposed darkness, Asil’s light would act as a beacon—and she didn’t want to find out what it might attract.
She wrenched the screwdriver from the window, lifted the brake on her chair, and backed up. The horizontal metal bars no longer felt like a cage; now, Asil was grateful to have a barrier against the outside world. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to close the window and lock it, she considered, and rolled herself forward again.
For the first time since she’d left the hospital, Asil came face-to-face with her new, monstrous self. The utter blackness behind the closed glass window reflected her image: flesh pieced crudely together like a children’s puzzle. Her left eye jutted forth from atop a crushed cheekbone; her sagging bottom lip, bloated and purple, revealed a row of cracked and missing teeth. Asil couldn’t bear the freakish spectacle, yet she couldn’t stop gazing at the reflection, and as she reached up to lock the window, she caught sight of her forearm.
The crude marking hacked into her flesh caused a grisly, suffocating seizure in her chest; bitter fear numbed her lips and a whimper perished on her tongue. The message her attackers had left on their victims hadn’t been an obscure, gang-related attribute. It had been a violent forewarning.
“Asil!” Carla Shaw’s voice echoed through the apartment followed by three powerful thumps on the door. “It’s mom. Let me in!”
Asil wheeled around to face the door. Her mother’s call was composed, almost affectionate, and Asil struggled to remember the last time her mother had spoken to her with a modicum of concern. She pushed herself forward but abruptly stopped. Despite her mother’s caring tone, Asil felt the woman’s disgusted stare penetrating the barrier between them; she pictured Carla’s face, cheek aflutter, threatening and determined.
“Asil! Let me in!”
What kind of woman leaves her cripple daughter trapped in an apartment for two days? Asil wondered, the question renewing her amassing distain for her mother. Asil’s grasp on the screwdriver tightened. If she steps foot inside, I’ll shove this screwdriver down her throat, she decided, and then shook her head to dispel the disgusting idea. Maybe her mother hadn’t been able to come home, she considered. Perhaps she should be helping her mother, not fantasizing about… Jesus, what was wrong with her? Why was she so fixated on the macabre? Asil couldn’t explain it, but she was certain her subconscious had never veered into such unseemly territory before…at least, not before the attack.
“Asil, open the fucking door!”
Carla had also changed. It was true that she had grown increasingly unstable over the course of her ten-year drug addiction, but she had never been pointedly cruel to Asil—until the attack.
“Open the fucking door you grotesque little bitch!”
A deep, fearful convulsion shook Asil's limbs, yet despite her overwhelming fear, she desired a violent confrontation. Her fingers twitched, hands craving the titillating sensation of tearing flesh from bone.
At the door, Carla jerked the knob, pulling and twisting and punching it.
“Open the door Asil. Mommy wants to rip your fucking eyes out!”
The screwdriver in Asil’s hand dug into her palm, and she glanced down at the weapon, wondering if the homicidal hysteria that had burrowed under her own skin since the assault had infected her mother too.
She wondered whether a similar disposition could poison the rest of the city.
The whole world.
The doorknob twitched; her mother was unlocking the door.
Asil let the screwdriver fall into her lap, grabbed the wheels of her chair, and pushed. She reached the door just as it burst open.
The chain deadbolt tightened, caught, and stopped the door from swinging ajar, but Asil continued to roll forward. Her foot touched the wall as she struggled to pull the wheels of her chair in reverse. Her mother’s hand slipped through the four-inch gap in the doorframe and grabbed hold of Asil’s unfeeling ankle.
Deep crimson blood was caked under Carla's fingernails and clung to chunks of loose skin. Ivory bone glittered in the bright overhead light. Despite her injuries, Carla held tight; the soft flesh of Asil’s unused appendage bulged between her mother’s fingers.
Asil longed to kick the beastly hand away, but her legs refused to abide her brain’s command. She looked around for something with which to defend herself, remembered the screwdriver, and snatched it up.
As Carla pulled her toward the door, Asil turned her head away, determined not to see more of her mother’s hideous appearance than one ghastly hand. She cried out and dropped her arm; the Phillips-head penetrated Carla’s hand just below the knuckle. Blood splattered onto Asil’s bare shins; her mother wailed in agony and retreated. Asil thrust the door shut with her fist.
Outside, Carla hissed and moaned like a dying animal. Asil backed away, fully aware it was only a matter of time before her mother recharged and unlocked the door again. How many times could she fight her off before the chain broke?
As she rolled backward into the living room, Asil considered her options. She could battle her mother by the door, but her strength and energy were waning, and without any painkillers, she wouldn’t last long in a physical skirmish. Suicide darted through her mind; she could finish what she’d started with the window guard, but instead of looking outside, she could throw herself onto the street. The fourteen-story drop would certainly kill her, but could she go through with it?
At the door, her mother inserted her key. The chain caught a second time, and Carla thrust her arm inside.
“I’m going to kill you! I’m going to kill you!”
Asil stopped her chair at the kitchen, reached up, and shut off the light.
“I’m going to kill you Asil!”
Darkness settled over the apartment just as a second set of hands joined Carla at the door. Somewhere in the hallway, a man hocked a loogie; a few moments later, a child laughed.
Asil tightened her grip on the screwdriver and settled on option three: wait.
She would wait for whatever was coming.