Wednesday, August 2nd
The air was hot and thick, heavy with moisture, and he lay unwillingly awake beneath its weight, his bedsheet soaked in sweat. The ceiling was gray and blank above him when he opened his eyes. When he closed them and tried to sleep, or pretended to try, he saw only a darker gray.
He thought he could almost hear the air moving about him, a slow, sluggish, viscous movement, like the shifting of wet sand, and he wished that his clock-radio were an old-fashioned wind-up alarm clock, so that at least he would have the ticking to mark off time for him. As it was he lay in an infinite timelessness, feeling the perspiration ooze from his back into the mattress.
He forced a sigh out into the air above him and turned his head. The glowing red digits on the clock read 3:09 a.m.
There was no point in pretending he could sleep, he decided. It was too hot, too humid, the air too still and the silence too deep.
He could sleep later, by daylight, after he had dragged someone from Maintenance up to fix the air conditioner. He was almost two weeks ahead at work, and half the department was off at the beach anyway. No one would care if he took Wednesday off and slept all day.
If his bedroom stayed this hot, however, he was not sure whether he would ever sleep again.
He wondered whether the outside air had cooled off enough to be better than the air in his apartment. He had carefully hoarded what little coolness remained since his air conditioner had failed, but now, he admitted reluctantly, it was gone. It was time to open the windows and gain whatever benefit the warm, foul outside air might hold.
Wearily, he swung his legs off the bed and leaned forward, his arms resting on his thighs. Breathing required a conscious effort.
After a moment's rest he stood up and took the one step necessary to reach the window. He stretched out one hand, groping in the gray gloom, and found the drawcord of the drapes. He tugged, and the drapes slid away from the window, revealing the streetlighted world beyond.
Something was blocking his view.
With a shock, he saw that eyes were staring in at him, glowing red eyes beneath a blue-black slouch hat, eyes that were too large to be human, set in a dark, bony face, a face too long and narrow to be human.
He stared back, too surprised to react.
The misshapen red-eyed face parodied his surprise; the eyes widened like his own.
There were no whites, and the pupils were vertical black slits in scarlet that blazed like neon.
Between the eyes was a mere sketch of a nose, a narrow grey ridge down the center of the face, ending in two large, open, sharp-edged nostrils.
Below that, thin black lips rimmed a pursed little slit of a mouth.
Above that face the hat was like a patch of starless night sky, a heavy, old-fashioned hat that made no sense at all on a hot August night.
For a moment he tried to tell himself that it was his imagination, or a distortion of his own reflection, but then the apparition smiled at him, a humorless grin revealing long needle-sharp teeth, far too many teeth, gleaming pale gray in the darkness. That was not his reflection, distorted or not.
A misshapen, attenuated hand appeared, one black, clawlike fingernail touched the brim of the hat in sardonic salute, and abruptly the thing was gone, sliding suddenly away in a direction the man inside the bedroom could not identify.
Startled out of his paralysis by this disappearance, he snatched at the window latch and flung up the sash; he wanted to lean out the window and call after whoever -- or whatever -- had looked in.
The screen blocked him. He leaned up against it, knowing that by the time he could work the stiff, unoiled, spring-loaded catches the peeper would be long gone.
He stared out at shadowy treetops above the parking lot and saw no trace of anyone at the window, no sign of anyone at all, and through his surprise and muddled weariness he remembered abruptly that he was on the fourth floor, the top floor, and that the only balcony was outside the living room, a good twenty feet away.
The window was thirty feet up in a sheer brick wall. Nobody could possibly look in that window.
He sank slowly back onto the bed until he was sitting with his hands at his sides, suddenly unsure of the reality of what had just happened. Perhaps he had fallen asleep after all, he thought, enough to dream the apparition.
That had to be it, he told himself. After all, he could see nothing outside now but the motionless leafy branches, the dark mass of the building across the way, and the dim glow of distant streetlights.
He stood again and stepped toward the window. Thick, moist air brushed against his face, warm and muggy, but cooler than the air in his apartment. There was no sign of anything out of the ordinary.
He stepped back again, leaving the sash wide open.
He shuddered. He was out of practice facing nightmares. He did not remember having any since he was a kid.
He had had one now, though. That ghastly face could be nothing else. It had seemed completely real for an instant, but it couldn't have been. It had to have been a nightmare.
It had to have been a nightmare.
Well, he told himself, if he was sleepy enough to dream, he was sleepy enough to sleep, whatever the weather. He lay down on the bed, shifted in a vain effort to get comfortable, then closed his eyes.
Sleep came slowly, and reluctantly, and in tiny increments, but at last it did come.
The world sounded wrong when he awoke.
Outside the window traffic growled and murmured and voices flickered in and out of audibility, just as they always did by day, but something was subtly different, and he knew from the sound that it was not his usual hour for waking -- or if it was, then something was wrong somewhere nearby.
He rolled over, blinking in the bright wash of sunlight, and puzzled out the digits on the clock: 11:23 a.m. That was later than he had really expected to sleep. He had half expected to awaken at 7:30, as he usually did, despite having stayed up until after 3:00.
The thought of 3:00 a.m., and the moist heat that still filled the room, reminded him of the apparition he had seen at the window, and again he shuddered slightly. What on Earth, he asked himself, had brought on anything like that? How had he come up with such a thing?
He remembered the long silver-grey teeth, pointed needle-sharp, gleaming dully -- how truly hideous! What had he done to dredge up such an image from his subconscious?
And that hat, that great dark slouch hat, the brim turned down on one side, how had he dreamt up something that was simultaneously as frightening and absurd as that hat?
He shook his head, clearing away the memory of the face, clearing his thoughts of the cobwebs spun there by the spiders of sleep, readying himself to face the day -- or what was left of it, at any rate.
Coffee, he thought. He rose and let himself fall forward in the direction of the kitchen, catching himself with his feet and transforming the fall into a shambling walk.
The air seemed cooler; he wondered if the little heat wave that had made the last few days so unbearable was over. The summer, and the spring before it, had been cool and wet, so that when temperatures finally had reached the nineties the heat had seemed even worse by comparison.
He was halfway down the hall when someone knocked on the door of the apartment.
Cursing, he turned back to the bedroom, snatched his bathrobe from the back of the door, and shuffled toward the living room.
"Police!" someone called, "Is anyone in there?"
"Oh, shit," he muttered. "I'm coming!" he called, pulling on his robe as he crossed the living room. The cotton clung to the sweat on his back.
He heard voices, but couldn't make out the words; someone was talking in the hallway. He thought the tone was one of surprise, maybe fear -- that puzzled him.
He stopped and peered through the lens in the door as he knotted the belt.
Two men in police uniforms stood there -- and one had his gun out.
He froze, with his hand on the doorknob.
He could not think of anything he had done, anything he was involved with, anything anyone he knew might have done, that could logically account for the presence of a cop with a drawn gun outside his door.
He'd heard stories about drug sales in the area, but nothing like that had happened here on the fourth floor of C Building in the Bedford Mills Apartments, and he certainly hadn't been involved in any illegal transactions, here or anywhere else in Diamond Park. Even back in college he'd never done anything stronger than pot, and he hadn't even done that in several years.
"Let me see your badges!" he called through the closed door.
The two cops glanced at each other; then each, in turn, showed his badge to the lens.
He had no idea what to look for in determining whether the badges were authentic. They certainly looked real, as far as he could see in the distorted view through the peephole.
The door was equipped with a cheap little chain-lock. He knew that it wouldn't stop a serious intruder for more than a few seconds, but he put it on anyway, and with a tightening in his stomach, he opened the door a crack.
One policeman, the larger one, was standing at the door. The other, the one with his gun drawn, had stepped back well out of reach, and had the gun raised -- not pointed anywhere in particular, but up and ready, a black silhouette against the drab gray of the concrete block wall.
The big cop said, "Sorry to bother you, sir, but could we have a few minutes of your time? We'd like to ask you a few questions."
The cop's voice was calm, polite, unhurried -- but beads of sweat gleamed on his forehead, and his partner was still there with the gun.
He was not stupid or ignorant; he had read of "good cop/bad cop" scenarios. This, however, was carrying the idea to a bizarre extreme.
"What about?" he asked, trying to sound normal.
He failed; his voice was still clogged with sleep, and the question came out as a hoarse whisper.
"Well, sir, that's hard to explain. If you could come downstairs and talk to the lieutenant. . ."
"I'm not dressed," he pointed out. His voice was better this time.
"There's no hurry," the cop said diffidently. "You can get dressed."
He was becoming annoyed, despite the presence of the gun in the background.
"What's this about, officer?" he demanded.
The cop hesitated, and then said, "It's a missing persons case, sir. We hope you'll be able to help us."
He was still puzzled. Why the gun? Why should he come downstairs and talk to a lieutenant, instead of answering questions here?
"Who's missing?" he asked.
The cop hesitated again, almost glanced at his partner, and then thought better of taking his eyes off the open door. "Your neighbors," he said quietly.
That drew the longest hesitation yet.
Finally, the cop took a deep breath and answered, in a voice that almost shook.
"All of them," he said.
Copyright © 2000 by Lawrence Watt Evans