Owen was my pal. Maybe the best one, if I had to rank them. One of the good guys. He didn’t have many friends. We met in high school, drawn together by a mutual love in turn based strategy games. Master of Orion, Heroes of Might and Magic. Owen was an absolute beast at those games. He had a queer talent for memorizing patterns, statistics and maps. He’d devour games like a man possessed, teasing out exploits and secrets while the rest of us were cursing and swearing at the cheating, conniving tactics of our computerized opponent.
Even five years out of college, Owen remained thin as a rake, his eyes looking perpetually surprised through thick spectacles. Life happened to the rest of our little circle of friends. We went corporate. Chased the dream, ran the rat race. We never kept in touch like we should have, other than meeting up every few months for a meal. I gathered that he worked in a bank somewhere, cruising along and meeting his targets without excelling.
The last time I saw Owen was a little over 4 months ago. He had arranged to meet me at one of our favourite bars in a quiet part of town. At least, it used to be until jobs and the pressures of grown up life just expanded and expanded, filling up my life like so much bubble wrap. I got to the bar first. Or so I thought. I searched the crowd fruitlessly until my eyes focused on a lone figure in a scruffy coat sitting at the bar. I had to swallow a gasp as the man turned around. I hadn’t seen Owen in the better part of a year but he looked like he’d aged a dozen. He was thin before but he was nothing more than skin and bones. His cheeks were sunken in, unshaven, with a wispy beard framing his mouth. He smelled of sweat and grime and worse. One thing hadn’t changed, his eyes still blazed with a fierce intelligence. He gestured at the seat next to him.
When he spoke, the words came out in a rush. He’d found something, he said. He’d found a warning scribbled in an old map he’d seen in a library. It pointed to a street somewhere in the city that he hadn’t been able to find on modern maps or on Google maps. He’d hunted the street down, he said, and found a back alley, a nameless lane between two buildings that shouldn’t have been there. Intrigued, he’d gone back and found another two maps in the library with other warnings, in different handwriting from the first. The maps were published years apart, yet seemed to be warning readers away from similar nameless streets.
Owen grew more animated as he spoke, gesturing wildly, a small crust of white spittle forming at the corner of his mouth. He’d found more of the lanes the maps warned about. Cracks between buildings that shouldn’t have been there. Hidden alleys. I saw the familiar glint of obsession in his eyes, he’d found something special, a hidden system, and he wouldn’t rest until he had laid bare its secrets. He stopped short, his eyes widening at something through the window, across the busy street. I turned around to see what had spooked him but the throng of people at the bar and on the street blocked me. Hands shaking, he teased out a tattered map from his pocket. It was covered in his crabby writing, too small to make out by the light of the bar counter. He marked a spot and hurriedly folded up the map, which quickly disappeared into his pocket.
“It’s big. Something big. Something hidden. I’ve almost got all the places. I’m almost there. I can’t move fast enough. I’ll need something faster…”
So that’s what he wanted. Just to borrow my car for the weekend. I gave him a look that was half pity and half derision. Pity for the friend I knew, and derision for the madman twitching before me. It wasn’t the first time I’d let him drive my car. Much less now, since we’d drifted apart. I had no idea what had gotten into Owen and I wasn’t even sure that I I’d get it back in one piece. In the end, his plaintive wheedling got the better of me, and I agreed to let him have my car for the weekend. I wish to God I hadn’t.
I didn’t hear anything from Owen that Saturday. Or the day after. He didn’t pick up his mobile the entire night. I had to get a cab to work on Monday morning and planned to take my mounting frustration out on Owen after work, friendship be damned. His antics seemed more like college hijinks than something an adult should be playing at. I checked my phone as I left my apartment. A text from Owen.
“Car at my place. I was wrong. Burn map. Leave nothing behind. Don’t come after me.”
I was sufficiently unnerved by the message to leave work early. I hadn’t been to Owen’s apartment in years, but I still remembered the way. I saw my car parked out front, a cup of coffee in the cupholder, a huge map of the city, densely annotated, unfolded in the passenger seat. I made my way up the stairs. The door to the apartment was open. Owen wasn’t inside. His mother was. Her face crumpled with a grief that no parent should know.
Owen’s house was a wreck, his mental decline clearly reflected in his apartment. Maps, photographs and sheets of paper covered with a mixture of scrawled handwriting covered every possible surface. Between gulping sobs, she explained how she’d just come back from the morgue to identify his body. He’d been in a pretty nasty hit and run accident the morning before. The cops said he must have been dragged for a distance. Facial identification was impossible. She only managed to identify him through his personal effects and a tattoo on his upper arm. Or at least, a tattoo that used to be on his upper arm. The accident had sheared a chunk of flesh right off him, and she had to identify pieces of her son’s body laid out on the cold metal of a gurney.
Owen’s father and brother came by with the funeral director then. I excused myself, leaving the family to their grief. As his friend, I should have offered my help but I needed to leave the house. Owen had been found on Sunday morning. I whipped out my phone to verify what I already knew. He’d texted me at 3am on Monday morning.
My head was still spinning when I got into my car. The shock of Owen’s sudden passing and the chill left by the text message this morning danced nauseatingly in my head. Was the fight in the bar all I had to remember him by? I unfolded the map. Owen’s spidery writing covered almost every available space on the map. He’d been writing with a force and speed which turned his usually neat script into an illegible scrawl, so forceful in places that the cheap ballpoint pen had punched through the paper. He’d marked out dozens of locations on the map, with crude stars, accompanied by annotated times and dates. The rest of the text made no sense, there were scribbled symbols that didn’t even match any language that I knew of. The snatches of English that I could decipher made no more sense than the symbols, products of Owen’s obviously addled mind.
They watch from the cracks. Nameless streets.
Secret kings and queens of the city.
They sing to the dead. They eat the lost.
The meaningless text still sent a chill down my spine. The depths of my friend’s madness shocked me. I couldn’t fathom why he would ask me to destroy the map.
Lost in my troubled thoughts, I started my car. A polite chime snapped me from my reverie. It came from a shiny black slab on my dashboard. A GPS unit. Not mine. Owen’s. A strange thing for him to own, since he didn’t have a car to start with.
I looked at the tiny LCD screen. I was at a location that Owen had marked out on his little GPS unit. His home? No, it was slightly off, across the street. It looked to be in the middle of a building, a shop maybe? The streets were empty of both pedestrians as well as cars. It was a quiet street, but something felt out of place. No, the street wasn’t totally empty. There was a small lane, practically just a crack between two buildings right next to my car. A waifishly thin teenage girl was standing there, dressed in tatty jeans and a plain threadbare t-shirt. Far too thin for the icy winter weather. No shoes either.
She was wearing a look of intense focus on her face, her dark piercing eyes staring upwards towards Owen’s apartment. Her face was perfectly formed, pale, but covered in streaks of dirt. Her blonde hair, matted into crude dreadlocks. She seemed perfectly at ease in the cold. As though she could feel my eyes on her, her head snapped downwards and she affixed me with her mesmerizing gaze. I felt transfixed, like a butterfly pinned to a corkboard. Her bright pink tongue snaked out from between her dirty lips, the pointy tip ran across her lips in anticipation.
I looked back at the GPS unit. There shouldn’t have been an alley where she was standing. It should have been a continuous block of buildings. When I looked up, she was gone again. Unnerved by the nameless lane and the vanishing girl, I drove off a little faster than I should have. I must have driven at least 5 blocks when I heard the little chime from my dashboard again. Another star on the map. Same thing, a star where there shouldn’t have been a break between buildings. I nearly slammed on the brakes in shock when I saw the girl again. There was no way she could have made the distance between my last stop and this one on foot. I wracked my brains for a logical explanation as my car cruised by. A sister? Or did she have a car in a parallel street. I found her giving me that same intense look. It had to be the same girl. It was the look, that hungry look. She craned her neck to follow my car as I drove by, like a snake staring a mouse down.
I watched her shrinking into the rear view mirror for as long as I could. Then I floored the accelerator, trying to get as far from her as possible. Rubber squealed on the black asphalt. I’d put about 7 blocks between the girl and I when the polite chime from my dashboard sounded again. Adrenaline pumped through my system. My gaze swept across the empty streets. There she was again. It had to be the same girl. It HAD to be. She caught my gaze with her own piercing look. And she smiled at me. No, it wasn’t a smile. She pulled her lips up and back and bared her straight white teeth but there was neither humour nor warmth in the expression. It put me in mind of a baboon or a wolf, facing down something small and helpless. Baring her fangs, I thought. She abruptly turned and scuttled down that almost hidden alley. I stopped the car. Owen had found something. I hadn’t done right by him in his last days but I had to know how he died. I owed him that much. I rounded the corner mere seconds after the girl. The alley was empty. Rough cement walls stretched to the sky, blocking out the tired light of the evening sun. She had vanished in the scant seconds it took me to get to the mouth of the tiny, nameless alley.
My pulse quickened as I made my way down the tight corridor. My walk turned into a trot, and the trot into a sprint. By the time I had reached the end of the end of the street, my chest was heaving, constricted by bands of hot iron. My breath steamed in the cold evening air. She wasn’t there. There weren’t any alcoves or windows or turn offs anywhere down the alley. I hit the end of the alley and peered down the adjacent street. No trace of the girl. No alleyways she could have turned down. No doors or windows she could have climbed through. Nothing except the empty street with… a familiar car parked by the side of the road. My car.
I had walked a hundred yards, through a straight alley, and wound up back where I started.
I felt the world spin around me. I put my hand on the wall to steady myself. What had Owen found? What was he searching for before he died? How was it possible for a straight alley to start and end at the same place? Large gouts of mist shot from my mouth as my chest heaved. There was something unnatural about this place. Something wrong in the air. I felt strange grooves under my hand as I pushed on the wall to straighten up. Someone or something had carved a series of strange symbols on the wall. Now I know where Owen had gotten those scribbled hieroglyphics from. He’d seen them too. He must have been trying to decypher it like some code. Typical, for him.
I cast a final look down straight down the strange, empty alley. The girl was still nowhere to be seen. I left the strangeness of the alley behind me as I made my way back to my car. My breath misted on the cold window as I cast one final look towards that crack between buildings, that nameles space. The nameless space with the same girl staring out at me. The temperature was close to freezing outside, but I finally realised what had unnerved me about that silent tableau. All that time, all that time I was staring at her. I hadn’t seen her breath mist up on the crisp evening air.
What I saw that day filled up my waking moments like a creeping itch. I would find my eyes magnetically drawn to the hard plastic shell of my glove compartment on the slow commute to work. Owen’s mysterious map and GPS navigator skittered around within their prison like caged rats when I took turns just a little too hard, reminding me of their presence. Owen had stumbled onto something. Something strange. He’d found something and it had consumed him.
I’d gone to the funeral with the expressed intention of handing over the map and the navigator to Owen’s family. The empty rows in the church showed just how far he’d taken his search. No colleagues, barely any friends. The odd family member. He’d lost his job months ago. Cut off almost all contact with the outside world. Owen’s mom had aged a decade since I saw her last. The raw shock of hearing about her son’s death replaced with a bone-deep sorrow, painfully obvious in the crinkles in the corners of her eyes, in her sunken cheeks, in her haunted, leaking eyes. I’d whispered my commiserations, saying how sorry I was, all while the truth of the map and Owen’s last warning poised at the back of my throat like a wave of bile. I choked the secrets back, where they sat in my gut, swollen and sour.
I had to find out more.
I spent hours trying to decipher Owen’s writing, looking for a pattern in the crazed scribblings. I lacked Owen’s skill with codes and systems. There was no pattern I could discern from the constellation of marked locations. No hidden message leapt out from his ravings. There was only one other thing to try.
The day was cold, I remember. Even for mid-winter. Not a skin cold. The cold that cut through your clothes, seeped in with every breath into your lungs. A deep, bone cold. I returned to the first three alleys where I’d seen the girl. I found nothing. The alleys were totally empty, in stark contrast to the busy streets just a few yards away. The fourth one was empty too. It was getting dark by the time I got to the fifth point marked on the map. The crowd on the sidewalks had thinned out as the chill got deeper. Owen’s handwriting was impossible to read in the weakening light. I rounded the corner and I saw another one. He could have been a brother or a twin to the girl I’d seen. Same blonde hair. A simple fitted t-shirt. Jeans. Barefoot on the biting cold concrete.
He gave me a sardonic stare. He looked to be gnawing at something, a chicken wing or something similar, with great gusto. I saw as he stretched his mouth open to suck the last ounce of flavour off the little morsel before drawing out the bleached bone from his mouth and flinging it into the distance. He made a little moue, as though he’d bitten into something sour. His eyes still locked with mine, he opened his mouth and rooted around with a questing finger. Finding what he’d been looking for, he hooked out a huge looking greyish chunk out of his mouth and delicately set it on the floor. Abruptly, he turned, took 3 deliberate steps to his right and vanished around a turn.
I rushed forward to see what he had out on the floor. I wished I hadn’t. It was a ring. Class of 06, still slicked wet with saliva on the outside, but sticky red with blood and shreds tissue on the inside. I instinctively clutched at the identical ring I wore on my index finger. The boy hadn’t been chewing on any buffalo wing. He’d been chewing on Owen’s finger.
The smell of blood hit my nose, sharp and rich through the evening chill. My last meal rushed out of me in a flood, and sat hot and steaming on the cold floor. I turned to face the small nook the boy had walked into. Nothing. Like the girl, he’d vanished. All that lay before me was a featureless dead end. Not featureless. Something that nobody else could have seen. Nobody but Owen and me. There, in the delicate spiderweb of cracks on the concrete, drawn out in a thin black filigree on the wall, was another of the symbols from Owen’s map.
When does a search become an obsession? Or when does obsession burst into mania? Owen’s degeneration was clear as day to me, but my own descent was far more subtle.
The terrible damage of the accident had visited one final indignity on Owen and his kin: they had to say goodbye to the polished wooden veneer of a closed coffin. Had it really been my dear friend in that box? There must have been a few hundred of those rings pressed out. It could have belonged to anyone in my graduating year. Yet… I knew deep inside of me that it had to be Owen’s ring I had picked up off the cold cement, wet with spit and blood.
My search began in earnest then. To seek out what he had found, hoping beyond reason that I would find my old friend somewhere along that path.
It started innocently enough. I’d spend a free evening after work wandering the streets, following Owen’s map, each location like another morsel on a trail of breadcrumbs. The trail of clues was maddening. Again I got the sense of a deeper pattern behind the randomness, and cursed myself for being unable to see it. Each site I visited seemed to hold a piece of the puzzle. I grew adept in finding the hidden symbols that Owen had found in the cracks in the city. I’d already found the first symbols scrawled into the wall in chalk when I’d seen the girl. Another hidden in a network of cracks in wall, after I found Owen’s ring on the floor. Those weren’t the last.
I found another set of 3 symbols, hidden within spray painted tags on a wall. One more in the carefully arranged guts of a dead rat, its bowels burst and scattered over the floor. Another woven into the silken threads of a spiderweb, stretched between grey concrete and a rusty dumpster.
Those hidden lanes and alleys were always deserted. It could have been lunch hour or rush hour, with the streets thronging with people and they would still be empty. I’d walk those down plain blank concrete canyons, for hour after hour, always feeling watched, never feeling alone. I never saw another living soul in those lanes and alleys during my search, but the hairs on the back of my neck would rise once I stepped into one. There was a sense of something deeply wrong, wholly unnaturally about those empty spaces. The sudden silence would envelope me like a cocoon, the rush of voices and vehicles coming from a world away, faint like the tinny broadcast of a distant radio station. The isolation was palpable. With the isolation came a crawling fear, a watery feeling in my guts and my legs, that something or somebody was observing me, leading me on in my search.
I never saw another living soul in those lonesome places. Until I started seeing them again. The glances were always fleeting. Titillating. A glimpse of a person turning into one of those cracks in the city, seconds before I rounded the corner, only to find myself alone in an empty alley. Or a set of footprints leading from a puddle, imprints of bare feet, like those of the boy and the girl, vanishing into the distance as the cold dry air drank the moisture off the trail. A recently toppled trashcan still rolling on the floor, without any breeze to push it. I’m sure I saw the girl again once. The blonde one. Anonther girl with her dirty brown hair cut short. The boy I saw several times, always in a distance, always fleeing from me. I’m sure there were more.
My search intensified. I took time off work to visit the cracks repeatedly. The symbols practically leapt out at me from the walls and floors, screaming to be read, deciphered. My experience with the first crack never repeated itself, but it was hardly the last oddity I experienced in the cracks. Once, near midnight, I found a crack that stretched for a full city block on the map, yet I could only count 76 paces from entrance to exit. Against all rationality, it measured 76 yards within the crack, but 100 yards on all parallel routes. On yet another day, I went into one of the cracks, scanning the walls for more of those symbols when I emerged, blinking at the sudden brightness, 3 blocks down from where I’d entered. How could a straight path have deposited me anywhere but directly opposite where I’d gone in?
By this point, my search started taking its toll. I’d gone beyond the point of worrying my friends. My phone, once a source of tweets, Facebook updates and text messages, slowly went silent. My boss had called me in and told me that he was letting me go. My job would still be waiting for me if I applied again. He put his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye. “I like you,” he said. “You’ve been a great worker, smart and fast. I don’t know what kind of shit you’ve been going through for the past couple of weeks but you’re not contributing any more and I can’t afford to keep you on at the state you’re in now.” I mumbled something vague about things being bad at home. I was too wrapped up in my obsession to care by that point. I’d gone beyond visiting and revisiting the same sites marked on Owen’s map. The week before, I’d found a crack that wasn’t on the map. Something new. Owen hadn’t found them all. I could almost sense the shape of things, some pattern in the layout of the cracks, some waiting breakthrough in the symbols.
That’s when I found him.
I had a lot more time without a job. My search expanded. I found two more cracks, greedily documenting their locations and taking pictures of all the symbols I could find. And then I found my fourth one. The sun was high overhead, but the light provided no warmth. Like a morgue, I remember thinking, all bright and cold.
I rounded a corner on a busy street, downtown. My breath caught in my throat. I felt the familiar tingle. I’d found another one. My heart leapt. But there was something else here. A few yards in, hunched over, was a man. A denizen of the streets, from the looks of it. His tattered jacket wrapped tightly around his slight frame to keep out the biting cold. A dirty hand poked out from his jacket, holding the zipperless front together. I just saw two fingers clutching the dirty material. Some terrible damage had been wrought on his hand, a bandage, gummy with dried blood and pus, covered the rest of it.
I rushed forward to speak to him, the first other real person I’d seen in my search. He perked up at the sound of my footsteps. His rheumy eyes widened when he saw me.
The man raised a sheet of cardboard, crudely torn from some carton or box. I’d expected to see something routine. A plea for spare change. Something about being willing to work. Maybe even something witty. Instead, scrawled in large blocky letters, 4 words. Run. They hunt you. The rough strokes of the letters were too broad to have come from a sharpie or a marker pen. The ink was a rusty smear of brown, too spread out to have come from a normal writing instrument. Blood. The man had written the warning in blood.
“Who…?” I formed the question with my lips even as the answer rang in my mind, clear as a bell. Owen’s voice. The kings and queens of the city.
In that moment, my eyes locked with the clear blue eyes of the wreck of a man in front of me and the dawning realisation hit me like a freight train. Owen. Sweet god in heaven, I was looking at Owen. He’d known it was me all along of course. But he hadn’t expected the look of recognition on my face. He opened his mouth and moaned, a wordless sound of pure anguish, his mouth wide enough for me to see the black stump flapping around inside like a dying fish.
The shock of recognition was too much for me. My knees buckled as I back pedal led away from the ruinous vision in front of me. I went over backwards. The impact drove the air from my lungs. The world flashed white as my head met the floor with a crack. I got to my knees, wincing in pain. Owen wasn’t there in front of me. I raised my head, the pain felt like a tent spike between my ears.Owen was standing a few feet from me. But he wasn’t alone. The blonde girl was standing next to him, dwarfed by Owen’s gangly frame. She held his hand delicately, like a nurse leading someone old and infirm. Owen’s entire demeanour had changed. Moments before he had worn an expression of shock and anguish. All that had melted away, and there was nothing but naked fear in his eyes. He shook gently as the girl raised his ruined hand to her lips, planting a kiss on the rotten bandage over his missing fingers. Not a kiss, I saw her lips work up and down as she sucked hungrily.
When she looked up, there was a smear of brown over the perfect pink bow of her lips.
“We’re coming for you next. There is so very little of this one left, and there are so many of us.”
Her voice was clear and sharp, with just a trace of girlishness. She reached up and stroked Owen’s cheek softly, smiling at me. Owen shuddered. The crotch of his jeans darkened as he lost control of his bladder. I tried to get to my feet, but the pain was blinding. The rush of blood to my head whited out my vision again. I blinked furiously, trying to clear my sight. When the world swam back into focus, Owen and the girl were gone.
I rushed forward to the spot where I’d seen him last. Nothing lingered but the faint smell of piss and fear. Like the first time I stepped into one of these cracks, a long straight concrete canyon stretched out before me. No traces of Owen or the girl. Then the screaming started. The same sound that Owen had made earlier, a sound of pure pain and anguish, torn straight from his soul. It seemed like it was coming from everywhere and nowhere. I spun around like a madman, hoping to catch one last glimpse of my friend. He wasn’t there. I put my hand against the wall to steady myself. I snapped my hand back. The wall was… vibrating. Humming. The screams were coming from the walls.
The streets had emptied out for the evening. I’d lost track of where I was, how far I’d run.
I felt like a man coming up for air, surfacing from the depths of a waking dream. A stranger looked back at me from the glass facades of the shops I walked past. An eternity ago I was young, full of life and successful. Owen was the vagabond, the kook, the madman. Now we were the same, he and I. Dishevelled, unshaven. With one difference. I was afraid now. Afraid of what I’d become, of how far I’d fallen. Afraid of what I’d been chasing, not knowing that I was being hunted with a greater hunger than I was capable of imagining.
I swallowed a little scream as I saw a pale face watching me in the reflection. I peeked over my shoulder. A young man stared out at me from an alley. One of them. The alley was dark, the scant street lighting made it seem like he was floating in shadow. He beamed widely at me. His teeth, white and perfect, and stepped backwards. The darkness swallowed him.
My pace quickened. Another alley, another crack. Two of them this time, staring out from across the street, their eyes bright with mirth and longing. Is that what Owen saw that night in the bar? Was he being hunted too? I broke into a slow jog and then into a flat out sprint as the fear took root and grew.
Owen was dead now, I was sure of it. I had squandered his first warning and I feared that his second warning had come too late. I had to get home. Destroy the maps like Owen said. Stay away from the cracks. Maybe leave town. There was nothing left here for me anyway.
Only one more thing to do. And I’ve just done it. Like the map Owen found. Or the last text he sent me. Or his last message to me written in his own blood. I’ve burnt the map, deleted all my photos, thrown out the GPS unit, anything that hints at where the cracks are.
All that I need to do is leave my story, my warning. And my hope that nobody else follows me, or sees what I’ve seen. I am done. There are cracks in our cities. There are dark things that live in the cracks. Hidden things, lurking in the web of cracks like spiders, waiting for the unwitting, the unprepared and the lost. And they are hungry.