Philip M. Roberts
The January Second Selected Writer is Philip M. Roberts
Please feel free to email Philip at: firstname.lastname@example.org
by Philip M. Roberts
Malcolm sat up in his windowless bedroom and listened to a door open on the floor below his. A stiff smile pulled at his cheeks as he ran his hand through his hair, faltering just briefly on the growing bald spot near the back. And only thirty-two, he thought with a sigh.
The narrow hallway leading down had no window either, nor did any room in the old building. Nestled between two factories in the heart of downtown, his three story home wasn’t intended to be a home at all, merely left over rooms his father had purchased forty years before to drive his charity work.
Malcolm stepped out into the main room of the homeless shelter filled with tables and cots to find his associate Clara Lemmert with a disheveled looking man by her side. Both turned to face the stiff and upright Malcolm.
“Here’s the owner,” Clara said.
“Heard bad rumors about this place,” the man said, probably no more than mid-twenties, a listless quality to his eyes that reflected some form of mental disorder, Malcolm suspected. The man stunk of garbage, grungy face full of defiance, of a sense of survival and confidence born from the streets. The sight almost made Malcolm laugh.
“We’re only here to help,” Malcolm said, eyes locked on Clara in case she felt like giggling as she had in the past. His eyes lowered to the sealed black bag she held by her side, then back to her face, aware she knew what he had been looking at. He gently shook his head as he approached the stranger. She glared at him, but put the bag down on a table.
“You need a shower and someplace to sleep,” Malcolm said with a soothing tone, placing an arm around the man, guiding him towards the back hallway. He felt the tension easing out of the man, allowing himself to be led into the hall and towards a door. “Showers are in the basement along with the rest of the rooms.”
The door opened to a dark staircase leading down. Malcolm felt the tension jolt back into the man at the sight of the darkness they began descending into, but Malcolm never strengthened his grip, never allowed any hint of emotion to enter his body, until they were at the base of the steps and he turned on the light.
Both stared at a large, dirt floor that continued to the left, out of sight. Malcolm shoved the man forward before he could say anything. He landed face first, barely able to pull himself up before the dirt shifted and the arms began reaching out.
They weren’t very long, and rather than hands, all of them had bulbous, nose-less faces at the tips. From the mouths and empty eye sockets snakelike fingers pulled outward, ten or eleven knuckles scattered across them, allowing them to wrap around the squirming man trying to pull away.
The entire upper body appeared, the skin patches of thick scales with the face tipped arms rising from between them, probably close to twenty of them in all spread over the creature.
The man tried to scream, but as his mouth opened the long fingers reached into it, just as they did his ears. His body convulsed as the fingers reached further into his head, blood trickling down the sides of his neck, his eyes curling upward until the process had finished and he fell limp and dead.
Slowly the fingers retracted tipped in red, the bulk of the creature sinking back into the dirt, pulling away all those small, freakish heads. Malcolm cocked his head to the side and stared at the bulb of flesh near the back wall. It was bigger than the last time he’d seen it, permanently above the surface, huddled in the far corner. It looked like a seedpod, he thought, and wondered, as he had a habit of doing after bringing the men down here, what exactly he was helping to create.
Now wasn’t the time. He reached forward and grabbed hold of the man’s legs, pulling him back to the stairs. Clara glared down at him from the open doorway as he hefted up the body.
“Someone might’ve heard,” she said. “You should’ve let me take care of him.”
When he reached the top of the steps he dumped the body at her feet. “Fine. Take care of him.”
He left her scowl and started back up the narrow, winding staircase towards his windowless room.
A modest trust fund had been set up by Malcolm’s grandfather when he was young, and the one source of money that his father had never been capable of depleting, but it wasn’t enough to live in any kind of wealth, and Malcolm had found himself forced to move into the upper bedroom in the shelter in order to get by.
Clara, Malcolm had come to realize, had only stuck by his father because she seemed to enjoy human misery as much as Chester had despised it. Even before Malcolm was forced to take over he’d seen the clear pleasure she received from hearing the stories the homeless told of life’s failures, a smug smile on her face. She had been good at hiding it around Chester, and clearly enjoyed letting it out in the open when Malcolm had taken over, until most of the homeless men stopped bothering to come to the only shelter in the city.
Clara discovered the hidden door leading down into the basement. Built into the back of a closet, it had gone unnoticed through all the years Chester had been alive, found by accident. Malcolm had sent one of the homeless men down the steps ahead of him on the first day he delved into the darkness.
His flashlight had shown him the hideous faces rising from the dirt and the long fingers pouring out of them.
Malcolm had left the body behind. He had stared with a white face at Clara. On that day Malcolm learned exactly who Clara was when she stepped, confused, up to the stairwell and only smiled when she saw the corpse strewn across the floor. “Didn’t think you had it in you,” she had laughed, and somehow, in the face of her indifference, Malcolm had felt himself smile.
“Father invested a lot of money in helping out the homeless around here,” the officer said without looking over at Malcolm. “Made this place quite the little retreat for them.”
“I suppose he did,” Malcolm said, standing by the front door.
“Brought a lot of them to this area, you know. Police in the neighboring towns started sending their beggars on a bus up here. Heard a lot of complaints since you took over. Not as friendly here as it used to be.”
“I’m sorry if,” Malcolm began.
“Found a body a few days ago,” the man said, and now he stared right at Malcolm, walked back up to him. “A bum. Heard he was last seen here. Heard a few other rumors as well.”
He stopped right in front of Malcolm, but he didn’t fidget under the officer’s stare. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said.
The officer smiled wide and laughed. He patted Malcolm on the arm and leaned in close, mouth right beside Malcolm’s ear. “Keep up the good work,” he said, and started past Malcolm out the door.
He watched the man leave, a smile creeping on his face, suddenly certain that his father had been alone in a world of men like Malcolm.
His light roamed across the dirt, looking for some abnormality, some sign of life or movement, but unless a person set foot on it, the creature never stirred. For years there hadn’t even been a hint of it until the bulb began growing, and made Malcolm consider discontinuing his effort to destroy all the good will his father had once created. The mere fact that such a supposedly loving man had generated as vile and hate filled of a person as Malcolm had always felt like at least some kind of victory, but he still felt revulsion at the sight of another beggar or bum.
Clara would be the most difficult one to deal with. The bums had to be alive for the creature to take them, they had learned after Clara eagerly killed one before Malcolm had realized the man was there, but the men didn’t have to be conscious. He had considered throwing out her bag of needles and drugs, and couldn’t deny the hint of fear he felt at what she might do if he did.
He clicked off the light and sat in near total darkness. Two monsters he had helped fuel, he thought, and listened to the door creak open up above.
Clara brushed snow off her coat and stamped it off her feet. “I think we should stop,” he said.
When she gave him her stern stare he’d always thought she looked like a librarian or a schoolteacher, frowning at something foolish a young boy was trying to do. He didn’t actually know her age, and while he suspected it to be mid-thirties, the wrinkles in her face from years of smoking made her look closer to fifty.
“I recall a day once when I couldn’t walk down the street without a man harassing me for money,” she said, looking away from him, hanging up her coat by the door. “A day when the great Chester Mokriski decided our fine city should be a haven for these foul individuals, and made us all suffer because he had the money to do as he pleased.”
“Why did you start working here?” Malcolm asked.
She smiled at him and turned on all the overhead fluorescent lights. Her black bag remained on a table along the wall, and Clara ran her fingers over the top of it. “I put together this collection before we found our little gift from God in that basement. We had plenty of men overdosing from drugs on their own, after all, so who would look closely if a few more joined them.”
Malcolm smiled weakly and pulled out a chair to take a seat. “There’s something growing down there,” he said.
“In the corner? Yes, I’ve seen it.”
“We’re playing with something we don’t understand.”
“God sent it to cleanse our city.” Her expression wouldn’t falter, wouldn’t allow even the notion that her beliefs were false. Malcolm suspected she refused to give up the game they played. She enjoyed the violence too much.
“I’m going to board it back up, and we’re closing this place down.”
She didn’t try to protest. She knew him too well.
“If that’s what you want, but don’t cry to me when God moves against you. You can’t expect to throw away his gifts and not be punished.”
Malcolm stood up and turned from her. “I’m going to bed. You needn’t bother coming back tomorrow. I won’t require your services anymore.”
He felt her hatred like a physical force behind him as he left the room and walked up the staircase to his cell.
He sat up but didn’t bother opening his door. Clara and a man, he thought, and suspected he knew who it was. Officer Reill, his guardian angel, and his supplier of bodies had made a routine of bringing the vagrants to Malcolm’s door. He didn’t know why Clara was still in the building, though he suspected she had pined away the night with a bottle of something and an ashtray full of cigarette butts.
The door below slammed shut, and outside an engine revved to life. Malcolm stood up and put his hand on the knob, but paused before opening it. Alone in the darkness, he decided to let her have her last fun before the end. What was one more life added to the pile Malcolm had allowed to form?
He doubted that she’d even give the vagrant to the basement. Knowing her she’d take her time and end a life herself.
Malcolm got back into bed and pulled the covers over him.
The front door was closed, but unlocked. Malcolm stuck his head out into the frigid morning and stared down the long alleyway leading to the shelter’s front door, not that he expected to see whoever had been brought in the night before. The person was surely long gone by then.
Clara didn’t stir when he lifted up her head to look at the blood-matted hair. He couldn’t gauge how bad the damage was, and knew only from her shallow breathing that she still lived.
Malcolm couldn’t help but smile as he stood up. “Should’ve let it be,” he whispered.
She would be even worse now. He’d seen her after any hint of failure. She’d be rabid when she awoke, refusing to stop until she tracked down whoever had done this to her, had bested her. Malcolm’s gaze rose past her to the hallway and the basement door.
Two monsters, he thought. He’d given one a chance at a last kill before he left her behind. Perhaps he owed the other one the same right.
Malcolm knelt down and lifted Clara up. She stirred, moaning softly, before going still, letting Malcolm carry her down the dark steps to the dirt floor.
He didn’t bother with the light when he dropped her to the ground. The jolt brought her abruptly awake, but she had no chance to even stand before the faces rose up and the fingers crawled across her body. Her eyes locked with Malcolm’s hollow stare, and he saw acceptance in her face right before the fingers crawled into her ears, tore into her brain.
He refused to look over at the pulsing flesh in the far corner, to see if it had grown any larger. You could shoot it, he considered, but the possibility of angering whatever he had spent so many years feeding frightened him too severely to try.
Instead he knelt down and pulled back Clara’s lifeless body, the blood running from her ears down the side of her neck already drying.
He carried her body wrapped in a blanket out into his car and glided carefully down icy streets. He left her behind a dumpster, burying her as best he could in trash. Up above the snow drifted slowly down and helped him hide her. He emptied out her drugs, syringes, and knife from the bag into the dumpster, then tossed it behind her corpse.
He made a second stop by the hardware store before returning to his shelter. As soon as he stepped through the door the smell burned his nose. Boards clattered to the floor as he ran across the room, eyeing briefly the patch of Clara’s dried blood as he hurried by it.
The closer he drew to the basement the worse the stench became, like rotted food and decaying flesh. He covered his nose and turned on the overhead light. Before him he saw the creature, pulled loose from the dirt, festering patches of wet, melting skin spread across its body. The empty eye sockets of the countless faces stared blankly at Malcolm, the heads limp against the rest of the form. The body was still partially submerged, the part above ground like a giant scaled oval, no eyes or mouth visible beyond its appendages.
He looked past the decaying remains to the torn open sack in the corner. He began to move towards it, ignoring whatever harm might befall him if the creature was still alive, when he heard the footsteps, and spun towards the figure walking down the stairs.
She looked at least twenty years younger than when he’d buried her body beneath the trash, and if not for her death, he would’ve thought he stared at Clara, nude, stopping in front of him. She had no expression on her face, arms limp by her side, but her eyes reflected intelligence, taking in Malcolm’s shock.
Her head tilted upward and he saw her pupils pull back into the skull. Before he could move her arms reached out and dug strong fingers into him. The effort was wasted, no desire left in Malcolm to walk away from the events he’d put in motion, almost happy to see the long fingers pouring out of Clara’s empty sockets and moving towards him.
He closed his eyes and felt them push into his ears, stretch painfully open the skin, tear into his eardrums, his own warm blood running down his neck.
Then the pain ended. Malcolm’s eyes opened to stare at the fingers pulling back into Clara’s skull, the hint of a smile on her lips. As soon as her grip was gone he fell backwards. She knelt in front of him, and though his ears were ruined beyond hearing, when her mouth moved, Malcolm heard the word, “Thank you,” whispered directly into his mind.
She turned from him, revealing a long, black indention running up her spine. The creature, or the creature’s child, left him by the massive corpse. He shut off the light, deprived of both sight and sound, and did his best to blame his father for all of it.
When he finally crawled up the steps, Clara was gone.
Philip lives in Nashua, New Hampshire and holds a degree in Creative Writing with a minor in Film from the University of Kansas. As a beginner in the publishing world, he’s a member of both the Horror Writer’s Association and the New England Horror Writer’s Association, and has had numerous short stories published in a variety of publications, such as the Beneath the Surface anthology, Midnight Echo, and The Absent Willow Review. More information on his works can be found at www.philipmroberts.com.