Scuttle

True Story: I never thought buying a gallon of milk would prove to be fatal.

He came at us like the Marshmallow Man, pasty but hairy and flushed and sweaty, gargling and huffing, staring straight through us as he staggered, both arms flailing outward. Like he was drowning on dry land, a fish out of water. My wife slid behind me as we walked. I had the milk in one hand. We passed the bookstore. There were cars in the parking lot. He came right for us, babbling huskily, his T-shirt soaked.

Swine flu? Bubonic plague? Terrorists had infected random people and were setting them loose in local shopping plazas within walking distance of suburban condominium complexes. The perfect plan for mass-contamination. Ground zero. I was prepared to ward him off with my milk jug, but he passed us by without incident. I held my breath until we were at least fifty yards away. I’m pretty sure my wife did the same. It was the logical thing to do.

I wake up at 3:00 AM. I check the locks on our front door. My wife usually notices, but she doesn’t say anything. Does she think I’m OCD? Maybe. She doesn’t say anything now. She’s in bed, sound asleep. I peer through the peep hole at the unit across from ours, lifeless in the yellow light. They haven’t switched from incandescent bulbs yet. The HOA hasn’t demanded it.

My hand drifts to the deadbolt, the doorknob. My fingers check for the second time in less than a minute. Perpendicular means locked. I might have installed them wrong. My eye doesn’t leave the peep hole. I think about Marshmallow Man and Night of the Living Dead.

I see a figure crawl by on hands and heels.

What? My heart leaps, adrenaline surges. My grip tightens on the doorknob. What was that?

I don’t open the door. Of course not. I’m safe standing here, watching. The door is locked, I know. I checked.

Another figure scuttles past like a beetle—but it’s a person, awkwardly trying to move like an insect, like a cockroach. Without making a sound.

We’re on the third floor; I can usually hear every footstep outside. It drives me crazy sometimes. These walls are paper thin. If anybody wanted in here, it wouldn’t be that difficult. For the Marshmallow Man or the Bug-People.

It’s 3:02 AM. I should go back to bed. None of this is real. Three O’clock is just a weird time of night-day; I’ve always thought so. Too late to be night, too early to be morning. I should warm up some of that milk, but I watch through the peep hole. Nothing. I’m imagining things.

Another beetle scurries up the stairs and pauses in front of the unit across from us. Silently, it perches with fleshy human arms and legs bent at strange angles. The head rotates. It faces our door; Marshmallow Man’s face.

I clap a hand over my mouth to strangle the sound. Marshmallow Beetle stares at me. He blinks, sidling toward our door. He knows I’m here. Go away. Leave us alone. You can’t be here. You can’t be real. I have a baseball bat in the hall closet. Our only weapon. That, and a set of Wusthof knives, a wedding present last year.

We had cockroaches when I was a kid. Not pets. Somehow, they always got inside our house. Even then, I’d wake up at 3:00 AM to use the bathroom and get a drink of water. Self-defeating behavior. The roaches would pop and ooze cream under my heels. Bits of them would stick to my socks. I hated them.

I should get my baseball bat, but I can’t leave the door. My hand is glued to the knob. For now, it’s steady. If I pull away, there might be a sound—all that Marshmallow Beetle is waiting for. He’ll summon his friends, and they’ll come through the walls like those roaches used to.

(This is a true story. I told you so. I’m not going to wake up and realize it’s all some bizarre dream. That’s not in the cards. There’s going to be a fatality here. Remember? "I never thought buying a gallon of milk would prove to be fatal." Still reading? Good. You won’t be disappointed.)

Marshmallow Beetle is below the peep hole now, out of sight. He starts scratching at the door. Lightly at first, tentatively. Then he paws at it with open palms, pounding and sliding. He’s going to wake up my wife. I can’t allow that. She needs her sleep. There have been layoffs at her office.

I release the doorknob and tiptoe to the closet. I get my bat. It sounds like he’s throwing his weight against the door now, trying to force it open. I approach the peep hole and grip my weapon with both hands, bringing it back behind my right ear. The other two figures, the first two I’d seen, creep into my field of vision. They grin at each other, crawling toward my door.

Why me? Why our door? Why not the neighbor’s right over there? Go away. Leave us alone. I don’t say it out loud. I hope they’ll get bored and move on, whatever they are. Some kind of sick home invasion cult? Mutants in the first stages of their transformation?

“Get away from here. I’ll kill you.” I tap the bat against the door after whispering those words out loud. The pounding stops. Silence.

“What is it, Baby?” My wife staggers into the living room, rubbing at her disheveled blonde hair and yawning. I slide the baseball bat behind the couch before she notices and head into the kitchen. I tell her to go back to bed. I warm up some milk in the microwave. I glance at the front door.

“Trouble sleeping again?” she asks. I nod and take a step back. Something pops beneath my heel—but I’m afraid to look.

Ω

Milo J Fowler  Milo J Fowler's website is a full-time jr. high teacher and a part-time writer. When he’s not grading papers, he’s submitting short stories to magazines, revising his manuscripts, and sending query letters to prospective literary agents. His short story "Hero for Hire" recently appeared in A Fly in Amber http://www.aflyinamber.net/?p=618.