Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3 * Part 4
A fortnight after the news reported the first interdimensional portal opening, Campbell stepped out of a gutted convenience store with several tin cans missing labels, a few jars of baby food, and a couple of packets of smashed ramen in his backpack. It was the first find in the seven stores he visited and while it wouldn’t have passed as fine dining, it was a damn sight better than the zero food in his apartment.
The main avenue outside looked like the aftermath of a demolition derby, abandoned cars smashed into one another in the street and on the sidewalk for more than three blocks. It was eerily quiet, especially for the city midday, and the air stank of insect musk and mildew. Soot-laden clouds hung so low a person could stand on the roof of a building, reach out a hand, and touch their underbelly as they drifted past.
He was about to head off in a different direction to try another store when he spotted a woman standing in the intersection, naked and alone, shivering in the ninety-degree heat. Campbell stopped dead in his tracks and rubbed his eyes almost like a cartoon character trying to clear a mirage from his vision. Head on a swivel, he looked around for any sign of demon threat and when he found none, against every ounce of common sense in his possession, he approached her.
Campbell made a throat-clearing sound and it startled the woman as if she hadn’t noticed him although she was looking directly at him as he approached.
“Don’t worry,” Campbell put his hands out. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
“…hurt you…” the shivering woman said. Her quavering voice was an octave higher than his but still on the husky side, and she spoke in an accent that he couldn’t quite place.
“Now, I know how this looks,” Campbell said as he set his backpack down and began unbuttoning his shirt. “But I assure you I’m not that kind of guy, okay? You just look like you need help.”
“…need help…” the woman repeated. She wrapped her arms across her bare breasts.
Campbell held his shirt out. “Here, take this.”
The woman said, “…take this…” but stood motionless, paying no regard to the shirt at all.
Poor thing must be in shock, Campbell thought, or maybe she didn’t understand English, the way she kept parroting the last words he spoke.
Holding his shirt out like a muleta, Campbell approached the woman slowly like a timid matador and made the shushing noise parents used to calm newborns. She remained stock-still as he maneuvered behind her and draped the shirt over her shoulders, but shied away when he tried to adjust it for a better fit.
“Okay, no touching,” Campbell said, backing off. “Understood. It’s all good.”
“Are you all right?” asked Campbell, moving back into her line of sight. “What happened to you? Are you alone? Where do you live?”
“Okay, too many questions at one time. How about this, are you hungry?” Campbell mimed putting food in his mouth and chewing.
Scooping up the backpack, he opened it and pointed at the tin cans and ramen. “Food.”
“That’s right, food, eat food, but we can’t eat here, we have to go someplace safe. I live nearby…”
“I’ll share it with you but you have to come with me back to my apartment.”
Campbell sighed. He wasn’t sure how much of what he said had actually gotten through but too much time was spent standing out in the open in this one spot and he was beginning to get nervous. And if he was being totally honest with himself, he had never been comfortable with his body and he was now shirtless in front of a beautiful woman. Yes, even though she was covered in grime, there was no denying how breathtakingly beautiful she was.
That wasn’t the reason he stopped to help her, he told himself, and almost believed it to be true.
Slipping the pack on his bare back, Campbell gestured for the woman to follow him before he turned and walked away. If she did, fine, and if not, then he tried, but he wasn’t about to risk burning any more sunlight out in the open. He hadn’t looked to see if she was following because if she wasn’t he’d be more depressed than he was willing to admit, but he did walk at a much slower pace than normal, just in case.
Remarkably, there was almost a peaceful quality to the city today, no roaming packs of either demons or human scavengers. All things considered, it was a good day in the apocalypse. And it just kept getting better because when he reached his apartment building, the woman was ten paces behind, walking with an unusual gait. He hadn’t lost her or his lucky shirt.
I’ll check her for injuries once we’re safely upstairs, Campbell thought, because the woman walked with an unusual gait, which made the climb up the stairwell time-consuming. When they eventually made it inside the apartment, the sun was beginning to set and the power had gone out eight days ago, so the first task was to light a few candles.
He silently cursed himself for not thinking to look for more candles when he was out. Sure, he had enough votives to last a few nights but having extra certainly wouldn’t hurt. He was going to have to learn to start making lists before going out to forage for supplies, especially now that he’d be providing for two.
He offered the woman a seat several times while he was darting around trying to tidy the messy apartment up but she continued to stand by the front door, shivering.
When his place was as clean as it was going to get at the moment, Campbell ducked into the kitchen to fetch a bowl which he filled with distilled water from a plastic jug. The building still had running water but the pressure was so low as to be nonexistent. He added a few drops of dishwashing liquid and gave it a quick stir with his index finger to kick up some soap bubbles.
Snatching a mostly clean tea towel off the rack, he set it along with the bowl on the foyer table near the woman.
“Get yourself cleaned up,” he said. “I’ll rustle up something for you to wear.”
“…to wear…” the woman said but paid no attention to the water or cloth.
“Look, you’re gonna have to get that gunk off you if you wanna stay here…”
With a huff of exasperation, Campbell took up the tea towel, dipped it in the sudsy water, and attempted to wipe the schmutz off her face, which up close was even more beautiful, almost unreal, like an oil painting.
The woman twitched and from somewhere inside the apartment came a scrabbling noise, which made his hand jerk and touch her face. A faultline appeared where the cloth made contact and divided her features. He gasped and took a step back as the crack in her face traveled down her body. She was being torn apart!
Campbell’s mind clutched at the straw of reason, explanation, anything that could have made even the tiniest bit of sense out of what he was seeing. The first thing to come to mind was that a creature had somehow burrowed its way beneath her skin and now it was eating its way out but as he watched the way her body segmented itself and rearranged the parts in a way that defied the laws of biology, he saw that she wasn’t being eaten alive. Something unholy and unnatural was unfolding from within her.
All too late he pieced the clues together. Of course, she was too beautiful to be real because it was a clever disguise, a camouflage used to lure in dumb human apes, the way certain animals and insects disguised themselves to fool predators or attract prey. She wasn’t shivering because she was cold, it was struggling to keep itself compressed within the bits of its carapace that resembled a human woman when pressed together in the proper formation. And its voice, that sounded oddly familiar now that he thought of it, was his own parroted back at him at a higher pitch.
What a complete and utter fool he was, thinking that rescuing a helpless beauty would put an end to his loneliness when all it actually did was end his life.