Gladys felt something. She looked skyward, a crack in the ceiling of the cave. It was daylight out there. The rays where they touched her forehead felt good on her skin. She looked down at herself, covered in muck and stink. The beast had taken a great deal of her considerable strength, but in the end, she’d torn it to pieces and when it tried to turn and flee, she’d dived straight into its considerable bulk, piercing through its slimy trunk and destroyed everything she’d found inside.
She was about to stomp on this last, wriggling piece when she felt something like an earthquake from outside of the cave and chunks of it had begun to fall. The wriggling thing split down the middle and she spotted something pink inside. Unafraid, as she knew now this place was a construct of her mind and nothing could harm her here, she reached for it and plucked it out.
It was a baby.
Gladys gasped and dropped it—luckily, only an inch or two, and it only made a note of complaint. The child’s limbs rapidly began to lengthen, its head swelling until it had the appearance of a toddler, then a young child, then finally stopping at what she would have guessed was a pre-teen. She took her fighting stance again, not knowing what manner of trickery this was.
“Wait,” it said after a considerable amount of coughing. It parted its hair to either side of its face and looked at her with stunningly bright blue eyes. “Please forgive… for attack.” Its eyes turned even though it never looked away from her, never blinked. She didn’t sense fear from it, but neither was there a threat. Gladys grew intrigued and relaxed.
“Other,” it began again, “outside.” It pointed up, toward the crack. It patted its chest with the flat of a palm. “Enemy.” The human creature looked to be exerting a considerable effort to speak and it began another coughing fit. When it stopped and looked at her again, something was different about its face, but she couldn’t tell what.
But then it hit her. This was the creature in the leather outfit. The one that had run over that poor lady, then one that had killed that boy Petey and probably Jackson too. She was suddenly aware of a whole other world where she belonged, where she was supposed to be now. And in that place, the thing crouched before her was trying to kill them all.
“Not kill,” it said and she felt it not exactly reading her mind, but being present there. “Not kill you. Kill other.” It coughed again, this time much more terribly and a gob of blood poured from its mouth. “Other is enemy. Cannot see other. Only you.”
A flood of memories returned to her of the last few hours. The man in the helmet she’d served the coffee to. The bikers. Arlene sprayed with blood. The roof.
But if this creature was the one that had been stalking them and it was not the real enemy, then who was it? How in the world could they stop someone they hadn’t even seen? Was it the bikers?
“No,” the creature said. “Enemy. Only one.”
As the creature took a tentative step toward her, its back began to bow. The scant hair visible on its head and face turned white and its face line at the forehead and neck, then jowled at the jawline and grew liver spots. Gladys still was cautious, but she didn’t stop it from coming.
It raised a frail, thin hand and touched her well-muscled forearm, a fist poised and ready to strike just in case. It’s time must have been almost over because information flooded from it.
The enemy must be struck down. It is preying upon your kind, disguised as one of you.
“Wha—” she began, her mind buzzing from this new form of communication. “What do you mean? The only one who has killed anyone is you.”
It has stolen from us. We are only here to return what was taken. We do not understand your… existence.
A picture beyond her understanding flashed in her mind’s eye. It was darker than anything she’d ever seen, but even amongst the inky black she could see things moving. But as she looked upon this image she understood she was looking at a life form comprised of many; one body filled with infinite minds, all in perfect coexistence. The image disappeared and so did her understanding of it, except that she knew a veil had been pulled away and she’d been made aware of life unlike any she could ever have encountered on Earth.
Harm is not meant to you. We cannot distinguish who the Enemy is in the form of your kind. We cannot exist in this plane in our own form. This is why the Enemy came to your world.
“What do you need me to do?” Gladys asked. She looked at the creature, which now looked to be a wizened ninety-something. Only those crystal blue eyes, fixed on her now, still were as bright and young as the child this creature had originally appeared as.
It produced something in its other hand—or rather, above it—as a glowing sphere floated above a waxen palm.
Take. When the Enemy is found, mark him. Then remove the boundary.
“Boundary?” Gladys asked. “What boundary?”
But instead of speaking an answer, either aloud or through the jack-in to her mind, it made a single –crik–sound and those blue eyes held no more of the life that had been in them just a moment before.
Gladys pulled her arm away and the creature remained where it was. She looked around her, breathing in the air, which smelled burnt and oily somehow. No, this place wasn’t in her mind. She understood it now. The creature had created this place and somehow drew her into it. Perhaps it attacked her as a means of fortifying her, of proving her worthy for the task ahead.
She stared into the glowing sphere, not sure what to do with it or to it. Even if she did, Gladys was unsure she’d want to. There was still no way to tell if the creature had been telling the truth, and her honest guts told her there was something amiss. Her mother had always said if you sat two people down to tell a story, you’d get twice your money’s worth.
But it was better to be prepared. The creature had given her a choice, so that was a nod in its favor. Perhaps attacking her was an instinctive move; God only knew how the things actually acted in their own world, where ever that was. She took a step back, nodded, steeling herself for whatever was about to happen.
The sphere wobbled slightly, then floated slowly toward her. Intense heat came off it and Gladys clenched her teeth, reminding herself this place was not real, that this sphere and her body were not real. And that the pain like touching a thousand red hot spoons left in an open flame concentrated into one, was not real.
It was an even mightier battle not to flinch than tearing apart the beast that had eventually become the child-like creature, but she did it. And once the sphere had passed through clothes and flesh like some magical osmosis, her flaring nerve endings that had been on the uppermost end of alert, calmed.
Gladys felt no different and realized she would not. At least until the time came. She blinked a few times and swiped her brow, also realizing she wasn’t sweating because this was not her real body. She looked up, the smell of burning—what was that, meat?—even stronger. It was coming from up there as if this world was connected to hers through that opening. She wondered if Fred had wandered away from the grill. She’d caught him coming out of the restroom with Dusty before and hadn’t hesitated to tell him all about himself back in his office when her shift had ended.
But the meat wasn’t even the strongest smell. There was also wood and metal and oil. As she was pondering she saw the opening was bigger. But no, that wasn’t it, it was closer. Gladys looked down and saw she was floating!
She passed through the opening and was immediately assaulted with smells much more intense than a moment before and sounds that made her ears hurt.
In fact, she hurt all over.
Gladys opened her eyes and tried to move, but it was like she was frozen.
A few feet away, she heard the fire extinguisher. Someone was kneeling in front of her and coughing and she thought for a moment how rude that was before her eyes focused on a man waving a hand in front of him, squinting his eyes with the top of his shirt covering the lower half of his face. He looked at her and then his eyes went wide despite the smoke.
“Holy shit!” the man said and fell over. He scrambled away from her, pointing. Another man stood just behind him with the fire extinguisher in his hands. “She just fuckin’ opened her eyes, man!”
“What?” the man said, turning.
“Look at her, man. Look! She’s fuckin’ dead and she just looked at me.”
Gladys recognized the man’s words as truth in an infinitesimal moment, feeling herself pulling away from her body. The two men looked at it on the corpse, apparently not seeing her standing before them. She took two broad steps over to the man with the extinguisher and walked into his body, instantly having control of him.
“Calm down,” she said through the man’s voice. She didn’t want anyone to suspect she’d ‘survived’. “It’s probably just reflex or something. Like when they hang guys and they get a boner.” At least, she thought a man would say something like that.
The man on the floor nodded and pulled himself off the floor.
“Yeah,” he said. “That makes sense. Uh, don’t tell nobody I screamed like that, cool?”
“Oh, hush,” Gladys said and then corrected, “whatever.”