by Steven Cuffari
Tessa’s slight, naked body glittered in the bathtub as she swallowed one oxycodone pill after another, washing them down with vodka. In a soporific stupor, she laid her head back, bleary, and stared up at the flickering light bulb above her.
Earlier, she had thought about leaving a note, but realized that there was no one left who would read it. Only a few days ago, her chronically ill mother died. She had been bedridden with pneumonia in their family hovel, unable to afford proper care at a hospital.
Only a few months before that, her father had been brutally decapitated by a malfunctioning hydraulic cable in the warehouse where he had worked like a slave. The greedy company he worked for provided no life insurance or pension to aid his family in the event of his death.
As a result, her brother became despondent and careless. He had already been involved in criminal activity, and days after their father’s death, his rotting, rat fodder corpse was discovered by one of the many homeless people in their neighborhood.
Finally, her mother became clinically depressed and stopped taking her medication. She died of sadness.
Tessa had always considered herself a failure, even before the death of her family. She believed she was stupid and ugly, and her family was everything to her. Having lost the only people who had ever loved or cared for her, life was no longer worth living.
Now she wondered, near catatonic, how long it would take for anyone to notice that she were dead. Her last boyfriend only called her for sex, and her boss would fire her before calling to see if there was something wrong. On top of that, her landlord was a deadbeat, her neighbors were drug addicts, gang members or starving, and the local police were useless, corrupt and violent.
Taking a final swig of vodka, she smiled as she felt what she thought was sweet death enveloping her. She closed her eyes and pleasantly welcomed its salvation.
A few hours later, she woke up in the bathtub. Her skin was pruned, and she was dizzy and nauseous. After vomiting up the opiate-laden acid from her stomach, she sat next to the toilet on the floor and looked at the empty bottle of pills next to her. If there would have been any left, she would have taken them. She barely had the strength to get out of the bathtub, but managed to do so, put on her underpants and shroud herself in her mother’s old, worn-out robe. She hobbled into the darkness of the living room, and with a sigh, sat on the ratty old couch. The lights in the room had burned out long ago so that the only light there was came in from the street. She stared blankly and sobbed quietly. I can’t even kill myself right, she thought.
A chilling draft of early autumn air invaded the apartment through a broken window. She shivered and went over to close the drapes. She paused for a moment and looked outside. The sky was dishearteningly black and the moon and stars were missing. It gave her a bad feeling, one other than sadness. It made her feel that the night was conspiring against her. She pulled the drapes closed, but the cold still came in. So she put clothes on underneath the robe and sat back down on the couch.
Wondering what she should do next, she looked around the apartment. As she peered into the darkness, she had the distinct feeling that she was not alone. A shiver went down her spine again, but this time, it wasn’t because of the cold. She strained her eyes to see and thought she saw the outline of someone watching her. As she stared, nothing moved. Nothing made a sound. Then, just as she looked away, she saw a shadowy figure move out of the corner of her eye. Frightened by the possibility that somebody had actually broken into her pitiful home, she ran out and didn’t look back.
Outside, she scuttled down her street. She lived in the heart of one of the most depraved and neglected neighborhoods of the city. The cold night air penetrated her to the marrow of her bones. Ugly figures passed her, and dark alleyways contained hidden dangers at every turn. Strip-clubs and casinos lit up the darkness of the vice-ridden streets like bonfires. She felt like someone was following her, but every time she looked back, there was no one there.
Despite her fear, she was suddenly distracted by a human skull in the window of a boarded-up antique shop. She stared into its empty eye sockets, and imagined who its owner might have been. As she stared, her eyes changed their focus from the skull onto her own reflection in the window. For a moment, her face was superimposed over that of the skull. Everyone dies, she thought and tried to come up with a reason not to kill herself, but couldn’t. She thought it would be better for her to die on her own terms than let the city slowly eat her alive.
Her reverie was violently interrupted when a police cruiser exploded into flames down the street.
People screamed in terror as a shootout began around them.
Blocked from going back the way she came, she ducked into an alley as smoke and flame rose up, scorching the night sky.
The police arrived moments later, attacking and arresting people without cause and despite protests of innocence.
When she saw her chance to escape, she ran from the alley. A man seemingly emerged out of nowhere, and she bumped into him. He was tall and hard, like a brick wall. She almost fell down, but he reached out and grabbed her by the arm.
As she tried to fight him off, he was covered in darkness. But soon, the raging flames from across the street illuminated his face, and she was horrified by his malicious visage. He was disfigured, inhuman. At first, he frowned, but as she struggled more and more, his grimace became a smile. He seemed to take joy in her fear.
Finally, another explosion went off, and he became distracted. She screamed, yanked her arm free and escaped. As she ran, she looked back at him, and he just stood there, making no attempt to give chase. She could only imagine what he wanted from her. She turned the first corner she came to and ran as fast as she could and as far away from the insanity as possible.
When she felt that she had ran far enough, she stopped. Every hundred feet or so, she checked behind her to see if the man was following her.
Soon, she turned a corner and was greeted by the eerily welcoming light of a run-down hotel called Le Fin du Monde. She remembered having seen it before. It wasn’t a reputable place at all, but at the moment, it seemed safer than her own apartment and certainly safer than the street. She looked back behind herself one last time and went inside.
The lobby was old and smelled of rotting wood and mildew with hints of urine and feces. She quickly got the keys for a room from the large rotund man behind the front desk. She had just enough money for one night.
“Room 213,” he said. He had a scar on his cheek and what seemed like freshly scabbed knife wounds on his left arm. He had a badge on his shirt that said, Ned. “Second floor, on the left,” he said and pointed.
“Thank you, Ned.” She didn’t know if she should fear him or be grateful that such an imposing figure stood between her and the dangers lurking outside. She hurried up the creaky stairs to the second floor. It was as shitty as the rest of the hotel, dark and in disrepair. When she got to the door of her room, she fumbled with the key, wanting desperately to hide herself away. A man with a scraggy beard, pock-marked face and bloodshot eyes emerged from the room next to hers. He hissed lasciviously at her. “Hey, little girl, you want some candy?” He reached out to her with a trembling hand. His fingernails were long and dirty.
Tessa cringed and ran into her room, opening the door before he could lay a hand on her. She let out a huge sigh and locked herself inside. The room smelled of dust and decay. She flipped on the light, but it didn’t work. So she waded through the stench and darkness and turned on the bedside lamp. The room was cold, so she warmed herself with a tattered blanket and sat in front of the partially boarded up window. Her eyelids were heavy with fatigue, hard to keep open. Each time they closed, she saw the hideous face of the man who had attacked her on the street. Too afraid to go to sleep, she decided to get some coffee downstairs instead. She left the room as silently as possible so as not to rouse the freak next door.
Downstairs, the coffee machine grumbled after she put in a few coins. It spewed out a questionable, steamy brown liquid into a flimsy plastic cup. As she waited, she looked away from her sad, hopeless reflection on the machine’s surface. It reminded her of the skull in the antique shop. Everyone dies, she thought again. She still wanted to kill herself, to escape her hellish life. She thought that maybe it would be better to let someone else do it for her.
“Excuse me,” said a deep, gossamer voice from behind her.
Tessa jumped with fright.
The young man behind her seemed to appear out of nowhere. He was just standing there smiling.
She grabbed her coffee and backed away from him. Although she was afraid, she noticed that he had a sweet, inviting smile. She resisted the temptation to talk to him and quickly turned around and left.
“Hey, are you okay?” he called out to her.
She looked back at him nervously and didn’t stop to answer.
“I’m sorry if I scared you!” he shouted as she disappeared up the stairs.
She did her best to sneak back to her room silently. Holding the coffee with one hand, she dropped the room key on the floor.
Shit, she thought. She bent down and picked it up. When she stood back up, the man from next door was standing there leering at her.
“You want some candy little girl?” he rasped.
She began to scream, trying to push him away and run, but he grabbed her by both arms. She dropped her coffee, and tears ran down her cheeks. She tried to stab his face with her key, but he twisted her arm, and she dropped it.
She continued to scream, and he covered her mouth with a dirty hand that smelled like sweat and cigarettes. She squealed and continued to struggle.
He dragged her across the threshold into his room and pulled her close. He whispered in her ear. “You wanna die tonight?”
Tears ran down her face. He tried to close the door behind them, and she struggled to stop him. Her arms began to weaken, and she realized that she wouldn’t be able to hold him off forever. He was winning. She closed her eyes, still fighting back, but began to give in, resigning herself to her fate.
Suddenly, she felt the man’s grip loosen, and she began to swing her fists blindly at him. He finally let her go, and she continued to swing wildly. She heard something hit the floor, and when she opened her eyes, the young man from downstairs was beating the man into unconsciousness. She was awestruck by his display of violence and backed out from the room, trying to catch her breath.
When the young man was finished, he closed the door behind him. “Hey, are you okay?” He stepped toward her, holding out his hand.
She stepped away from him and tried to compose herself. “Uh-huh, yeah, I, I just can’t seem to get a break tonight…” She held her head, shaking it. “Thank you for, uh…”
“Hey, no problem, I heard you scream,” he said. “I’m just glad I came up when I heard you. That guy won’t be bothering anyone for a while.”
She grimaced at the blood on his fists, but when she looked into his eyes, she managed to smile. “Tessa,” she said, extending a hand. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Adam. Nice to meet you, Tessa.” He shook her hand and smiled back at her.
She kept looking into his eyes. They were curious, caring, and beautiful. “You’re not from around here, are you?” she asked.
“No, definitely not, I just got here,” he laughed. “It’s a long story. And you? Where are you from?”
She thought about the answer to the question and began to cry silently.
“Hey, are you sure you’re okay?” he asked, putting his hands on her shoulders.
She nodded and wiped the tears from her cheeks. “Yeah, it’s just that things have been going so bad. They just seem to always get worse.”
“Hey.” He pushed the hair out of her face. “Don’t worry. It’s going to be all right. You have everything to live for.”
She looked at him again, and their eyes locked. “Thank you…” She closed her eyes, tears rolled down her face, and she kissed him on his lips.
Moments later, they were in her room making love. After they finished, they lay in bed looking up at the peeling paint hanging from the ceiling, smiling and holding each other.
“Thank you again for saving me…”
“Of course. I had no other choice, really.”
“You seem like a good person,” she said, caressing his face. “That’s hard to come by in this town.”
He laughed. “Don’t let appearances fool you.”
She changed the subject quickly. “So what are you doing here? Just passing through?”
“I guess you can say that. It’s hard to explain…” he said. He stopped talking and looked away from her as if he had just remembered something. He got out of bed and put on his clothes.
Tessa grimaced, and furled her brow. “What are you doing?” She tried to hold him back by the arm.
“Don’t worry. I just want to show you something…” He went to the bathroom and closed the door behind him, looking back at her, smiling.
She wondered what he could be doing and whether or not she should be nervous or excited. After a while, she called out to him.
He didn’t answer. She went over to the bathroom and knocked, calling him again.
Pressing the side of her face against the door, she heard a faint moaning that sounded like Adam’s voice.
“Adam? Are you okay?” she asked. She was beginning to get worried. “Are you sick?”
She reached out for the doorknob, but it began to turn on its own. Slowly, the door opened to darkness, and she backed away from it.
There was silence.
“Adam? What are you doing in there?”
She heard a strange sound coming from inside. It sounded like wet ground meat falling on the tile floor. She became worried that something was wrong with him, so she cautiously reached into the darkness to turn on the light. She was speechless for a moment when she saw a thing that looked like Adam on the floor covered in peeling skin and sliding muscle tissue. When she realized that it was some sort of changeling, she screamed, frozen in horror. Before it finished mutating, she recognized it as the man who had attacked her on the street.
He jumped on top of her, smiling and drooling. He breathed passionately into her ear and inhaled her scent. She cried as she struggled underneath his impossible weight. It seemed that the more she screamed and cried, the happier he became. She couldn’t help but look directly into his eyes. The longer she stared at him, the more she realized that although he might have looked like a man, there was nothing human about him. A drop of saliva from its mouth fell upon her cheek, and she winced.
“What did you do to Adam?”
He laughed. Its voice was as inhuman as its face. “Adam? There is no Adam! There never was!”
She struggled in vain. “Just let me go, please!”
“But you want to die, don’t you?” He raised his hand above his head, ready to strike.
“No, please! I want to live! I want to live!”
His fingers had long, razor sharp nails, and she closed her eyes and braced herself for what came next. The last thing that she heard was the sound of her own voice screaming.