Hear me out.
I don’t plan to stay here long. One way or another, this place won’t hold me. Yeah, sure – I know ‘they all’ say that. But trust me – I’m different. No, that’s not right – I’m probably bog-standard, but the circumstances are different. And the circumstances are going to make things a little difficult. Unless I tell someone – even if I tell someone.
Since I was a little boy, I’ve had a problem. The doctors call it kleptomania, to me it’s a challenge. Not a challenge like the kind you see in the big budget block-busters, the one where the suave gentleman spy gets the girl, a fortune, and the respect of the people he’s stolen from.
It’s a challenge to reign myself in. A challenge to try to keep myself from taking something, anything – and a challenge I always inevitably lose.
First memory I have is when I was six. My parents were in this store, a resteraunt or something. There were a bunch of pastries, fresh and flaky and delicious behind the counter. Glazed with honey, and chocolate, and maple syrup that looked like it’d be taken from a broken and unresisting tree.
The server was a nice lady. She saw my smile and the innocent look in my blue eyes, and I remember her saying from rosy red lipstick that couldn’t hide last nights bruises that she wanted to give me an extra little gift, for free.
And while she and my parents were talking, I helped myself to several from inside the display case, shoving them crudely into my pockets.
I never ate them, just felt nervous and nauseous and thrilled.
Somehow, my parents never found out. They found out much later, and my father got so angry that his face swelled up like a big old balloon. He yelled and shouted himself hoarse, telling me to never steal again and – yeah, you’re right. None of it’s important now. Even if I’d wanted to, which I did… I couldn’t.
Guess my self-control is pretty crap, huh?.. Just joking with myself, it’s why I’m laughing.
Over time, I moved out and moved on with life. Got a good car, a good job. But my habits never changed. I moved on from stealing odd trinkets from school and work, to walking around town. Finding houses where the people who lived in ‘em were too lost, and too self-absorbed. I’d wait, sometimes for weeks – watching them, figuring out if they were out.
And I’d bide my time, fighting the impulse until it was screaming into my ear – and then, then I’d go into my mark and take something.
Didn’t matter what. Maybe a piece of jewelry, maybe a book fallen from the shelf. I tried to avoid valuable things that looked like they’d be easily noticed or have sentimental value. I just needed proof – something I could shove in a drawer and mark as a sign that I’d been there. And then my little secret wouldn’t try to tempt me at coming back again. It’d be over, and under control – for at least a little while.
They don’t tell you that it means living alone, that it means avoiding other people but being charming enough that people think everything is all right. Sure, I could’ve talked to a doctor about it; maybe they’d even have been able to help, with words or drugs or medicine or something – but the voice whispered to me first and foremost, and it was seductive.
All I needed to be happy and to live – was to keep on taking all the little things that it wanted. And so it asked, and so I did.
But there was this one house that’d never really called to me. It’d been old, renovated a few times – failed to sell on the market. A young couple moved in, looking like they had too much money and not enough common sense.
With them, they brought their little daughter. Not even a year old…
I watched them go out, eating at fancy resteraunts at least once or twice a week. The new car the guy bought and lavished more time and energy on then his wife and kid combined – the sallow way each talked only about themself at the table, raising their voice ever so slightly in a kind of verbal fencing match nobody ever one.
And one day, they left in that fancy car to catch a show – and I slipped inside the unlocked front door moments after they’d left.
My blood felt like it was on fire – and felt cold as ice at the same time. The house was very organized; imitation vases with plastic flowers, silverware on tableclothes and paintings that looked a little too good to be true. My slip-on shoes didn’t make a sound as my field of vision took in everything around me, looking for what I was to take.
It took me awhile to process the crying sound. It was coming from a room down the hallway. And it was then I realized they’d left their kid home, all alone. My palms scraped against my khakis, and I could feel the surface of my skin, itchy…
No, I didn’t plan to steal the kid. I know what you’ve probably read in the papers, what they must have said. I don’t care if you believe me or not – but if I don’t tell someone –
At first, I avoided the hallway to her room. I tried looking upstairs, hoping to just take an earring or something and call it a day. Nothing stood out in the master bedroom, in the second bathroom, in some room that looked like a cross between a study and the rec-room for someone who never grew up, filled with car models and paper airplanes…
But nothing spoke to me, said with a velvet whisper that it wanted to be taken away and taken home, so that I could lock it in a little shelf with a padlock and a murmur and a promise it’d be safe. And a slave to the call, I made my way to the first room down the hall.
The crying had stopped when I made my way to the hallway. I’d gotten a little sloppy due to my unease, and I could hear my footsteps against the tiled floor of the kitchen as I passed it by. The first room on the right had a child’s mobile, but otherwise seemed to be another study – with a modern computer and office chair hinting at it’s doubling as a home office of some kind.
At least, that was my initial thought as I stepped inside and nearly tripped over the almost camoflauged cradle set up in the center of the room. Looking up at me with huge, innocent eyes – the couple’s kid grinned at me, and cooed.
I tried to ignore her as I stumbled around the room, once again taking time to mask my steps. Drawers full of paper and reports greeted me, not one interesting enough to take – at least not without spending far too long reading through them to be safe.
Then, I realized two things – though I’d once again ceased making any noise when I moved, there were footsteps – steps that fell a few moments after mine, then stopped abruptly when I did. Secondly –
She was crying again, crying hard and harshly and flailing against the walls of her cradle.
Man, I’m not lying when I said I nearly fell over myself in fright and shock – I managed to wheel around while my brain was grasping at straws, looking for some sort of excuse that sounded remotely plausible – they all vanished like grains of sand between my lips when my eyes met his.
He stood maybe a few inches shorter than me. Not too skinny, not too fat. Chalky-toned, and glassy eyed in a floral-print shirt that seemed too cold for the crisp spring weather. He seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see him.
Then, he opened his mouth and – smiling amiacably – grabbed me by the shoulder. I could feel the crunch of my shoulder popping from it’s socket as he twisted it around, more easily than any human should be able to do. His fingers felt like unrisen dough, or sculpters clay – and then I fell to the ground, whimpering like an idiot and trying to fight back the pain.
Strolling over to the cradle, he reached forward and tenderly plucked the girl from where she had crawled to – her tears had dried but as much as an infant could, she was glowering at him with recently-dried eyes. And in that instant, in a brief instant – I saw his fingers flicker like swollen white plaster all discolored by a fire and dancing in the wind.
And I knew that I had to do something.
Managing to pull myself from the floor, I ran and dashed into him, knocking the stranger to the ground and catching the little girl as he collided into one of the many bureaus with an audible crunch. I could see a wound in the side of his head, but no blood flowed – and indeed, he didn’t show much sign of noticing. Only a mild surprise that slowly turned into a look of hatred and rage.
Pulling himself up to his shunty and unimpressive height, everything from above his waist trailing behind him limp and uselessly, the stranger began to spasm uncontrollably and I ran. I ran down the hallway, carrying the little girl in my arms and terrified I might lose her since only one seemed to be responding to my desperate requests, and ran trying to ignore the voice screaming that I hadn’t taken anything yet, and ran terrified that if the man – or man-shaped thing caught up with me, I would die.
And then the tile bubbled beneath my feet, and I tripped, and fell. I managed to brace the infant against my still-good left arm, and used it to shield her body – but as the white goo-like tar bubbled around my feet and surged back to the man, I knew I’d been caught.
He made his way towards me, slowly. Certainly. He didn’t even try to move normally anymore, feet wide apart like he was riding a horse through the air. As the pallid substance grew and shaped itself back into limbs in the places where his arms should be, he fell completely to his back, and began to run over the floor like some sort of humanoid dog, panting with his tongue half out and his eyes glistening in excitement.
As he ran, his skin kind of glistened and sloughed off around him, white and bubbly and incandescent and I knew we were both going to die.
Or I would have, had I not heard the voice, triumphant and loud, whisper to me. Only a few inches away, the little girl cooed and my hand shot out, and I felt the cold steel of a lighter. It flickered on as my fingers braced around it – and the pale light brought the creature to a rollicking stop.
In it’s confusion, I managed to get to my feet. I ran towards it, screaming – I kicked the damn thing until it stopped moving, obviously alive and paralyzed more out of surprise than any actual damage. Then I set the house on fire, not leaving until I’d saw the smoke and fire cause the thing to shrivel and go limp and dissipate into the floorboards and tiles like so much burnt lichen.
Then, I joined the little girl where I’d placed her outside – and found myself, found by the police.
I told them what I told the courts – that I’d been planning to kidnap the girl, and the house burned down because of my own damn carelessness. It’s close enough to the truth, and close enough to make me regret nothing. I haven’t had the urge to take anything here, or at all, anymore.
The voice seems satisfied with my role, or the role I had to play. But I had to tell someone. To tell you, pal. Because in my dreams, I see those eyes – green and multifaceted before they grow human again for a few moments – and I know that I didn’t kill it, whatever it was. Oh, I hurt it, but it’s under the earth somewhere, under the ruins of that burnt-out husk of a house – and it’ll come back when they rebuild the place, or maybe just move somewhere else.
But first, it’ll find me here, and kill me. Make it look like I killed myself, or someone else did it. And that’s why you have to know – because I’m going to beat it to the punch, just to put the dreams to an end. Just – do me a favor, all right? Find a way to give this back to that family – to her. I’m sure they’ll use the insurance to move somewhere else, go somewhere new. But when that thing follows them, if it follows them –
I want her to have a portable fire to keep it at bay.