The Piezoelectric Effect

“Fuckin’ landlords, man,” said Zenia, slumping back down into the pile of blankets she’d heaped up on the couch. She tossed her phone on the coffee table and wrapped herself up. “Says the earliest he thinks they’ll be able to get anyone out here is Monday man, goddamn! We’ll be icicles by then!”

“What’s the temperature?” mumbled Aline as she put on another sweater.

“Fifty-five in here,” said Jeannie, squinting at the thermostat. “That’s down a degree since last time I checked.”

“Fuck me,” groaned Zenia.

“Isn’t there someone we can call? Tenants Rights Association?” asked Aline.

“Local cadre of the Red Guards would be more useful, I imagine,” said Jeannie, scowling and pulling her balaclava down over her face. “Time to guillotine the land owners, that’ll get this shit sorted!”

“Well, while we’re waiting for the revolution to start, what’ll be do in the meantime?” asked Zenia, shivering. “It’s supposed to get near freezing tonight. The house will be a meat locker come morning!”

It had been a week since the three roommates had enjoyed a fully functioning house. Something with the wiring, the landlord has said when he’d come out to look at it – it was an old house, after all, from the 1930s, three bedroom one bath built in what was, then, the distant edge of town. The neighborhood had been swallowed up by the city since, and housing costs had gone through the roof. All the bohemian little family homes had become rentals for students, and that was how Aline, Jeannie, and Zenia had found each other. It had been an auspicious beginning, three young women starting grad school in a new city, all in different departments, but they’d become fast friends and had, up until the wiring in the house had started to fail, felt themselves very lucky.

Now, with a frosty late Autumn coming on and their thermostat working intermittently at best, they had gathered in the living room, huddled together for warmth on the big Goodwill couch under every blanket they had.

“Why don’t they get out here and fix this!” squeaked Aline. “The pipes’ll freeze before Monday, don’t they care?”

“‘Just leave ‘em runnin’ honey’” growled Jeannie in her best impression of their landlord, Mr. Augustino.

“Maybe we should think about a hotel, though,” said Zadie, blowing into her hands. “This is already a killing cold, and if that storm hits on Saturday –”

The knock at the door was a tiny sound, tepid, four very unrhythmic taps against the heavy wood of the door, a long pause, and then two more. Jeannie, disgusted, got up to answer it.

“Freezing to death, and now the Mormons are coming to bother us, what else can go wrong!” she swung the door open and blinked, twice. “Uh, hello?”

“Mhm, hello Miss,” said the small man, nodding his huge head in greeting. “I understand that you’re having some electrical troubles?”

He was short, shorted than Aline, who barely went past five feet in her socks, but despite that his overall thinness gave him a stretched-out appearance, with overlong limbs and a lanky torso. His head was enormous though, round, like a balloon, and completely bald; he looked like he would be in serious danger of toppling over under strong wind conditions. His skin was pale, almost translucent, and his huge watery blue eyes made him look perpetually on the verge of tears. Despite that, he was smiling, or at least trying to. The thin, wan curve of his lipless mouth suggested it, anyway.

“Uh,” Jeannie, nearly six feet herself, stared down at the strange little man. Blushing, she pulled the balaclava off her face. “Yeah, I mean, we sure are! I thought the landlord said he couldn’t get anyone out here until Monday at the earliest, though.”

“Someone cancelled, and we had an open slot,” he murmured, blinking slowly up at her. “So here I am.”

“Ah, right, come on in then,” said Jeannie, ushering him inside. Aline and Zenia stared at the little man. He was in a black jumpsuit, and wore a heavy workbelt, laden with tools. He blinked a greeting at them.

“Ladies,” he said.

“Hello!” chirped Aline. “Glad you could make it!”

“What seems to be,” he paused, and a shockingly red tongue flashed out to lick his lips. “The problem?”

“Uh,” said Aline, staring at the wide slit of his mouth.

“Electricity keeps coming and going in the house,” said Zenia, standing up. “Lights flicker on and off, and sometimes just konk out for hours in whole rooms.”

“And it means the furnace won’t go on, not for more than a few minutes at a time, before it dies on us,” said Jeannie. She blew a stream a foggy breath in the cold air. “See what I mean?”

“Mhm,” nodded the little man. “I should see the circuit breaker. Where is it?”

“Down in the basement,” said Jeannie, grabbing the flashlight by the door. “I’ll show you, c’mon.”

Aline and Zenia watched them go, listening as their footsteps on the wooden stairs faded away into silence.

“Jeannie was a good friend,” said Aline, seriously. “I sure will miss her.”

“Yeesh,” laughed Zenia, “tell me about it.”

***

Jeannie came up from the basement a few minutes later.

“Man, it’s warmer down there than it is up here,” she said, rubbing her hands over her arms. “Well, good news is the cryptkeeper there says he thinks he can fix it!”

“Shh!” hissed Aline, “don’t be mean! What if he heard you?

“He’d chop me up into bits, probably,” said Jeannie, shrugging.

“Oh man,” said Zenia, leaning back into the couch. “I can’t believe it’s going to be fixed! Imagine being warm again?”

“Well, he said it’s a pretty big job; he was elbows deep into the circuit breaker when I left him down there, so don’t get to antsy.”

The little man came up out of the basement after a half an hour, covered in cobwebs and grease stains. He was grinning madly, his blue eyes wide and sparkling.

“Very old house, and such an,” he paused and thought, “eccentric approach to wiring. I’m surprised you haven’t had trouble before now. Far too much amperage, too much strain on the capacitors, arc compressors were stuck in a reciprocity loop!”

“Ah, man, I hate it when that happens,” said Zenia, looking up from her book. He giggled and nodded.

“I must go and get some parts, I’ll be right back.” He scurried out the door and down the walk to the huge, black, unmarked van parked on the side of the road. The three watched him through the blinds in the front window.

“Goddamn,” said Zenia. “Look at that! That’s not a repair van, that’s a kill van.” From the window they saw him crawl in the back, the van shaking as he searched through it furiously. He emerged from the front, cradling a box lovingly against his chest as he walked to the house.

“New parts, special parts,” he said, gazing down at the contents of his box. He lifted out a copper and glass tube a few inches long to show to them. “Look, see? Much better equipment!” The three women squinted. A coil of brass wound its way through the tube, and as it moved in his hand a strange sheen rippled along its glass surface, like the iridescence of bird feathers that only hinted at ultraviolet colors hidden from human eyes.

“Wow,” said Aline, brightly. “They’re really purple!” The little man nodded in agreement, and then ran down the stairs to basement.

He made three more trips, bringing more and more new parts and tools each time, long tangles of cable, terrifyingly toothed boxes, something that looked like a torture device and sounded like a Theremin as it wailed up the stairs from the basement. Finally, after another hour, he emerged, his little chest heaving with exertion and excitement.

“Circuits and wires and transistors,” he muttered, wiping his hands on his shirt. “Now then, all taken care of. However, it really is too much for this house, too much strain I mean, so you’ll need something else. Wait here, don’t move!” He ran out, and when he returned he was carrying a case of light bulbs. They were unlabeled, just plain white carboard boxes, and inside each was a teardrop shaped bulb. There were twice as many, at least, as lights in the house. He held one up and looked at it in the pale sunlight flooding in through the window. “These, you’ll have to use these. They’re special bulbs, they’ll keep the breaker from tripping.” He put the bulb back in. “Do you have a footstool?”

“Oh, ah, no,” said Jeannie.

“We can take care of that,” stammered Zenia.

“No problem there,” piped Aline. The little man looked disappointed, but set the box on the ground. He looked at his hands and held them up, palms out, for them to see; they were dark with grime.

“Can I use your bathroom?” he asked.

They watched his van rattle away down the road, then the three went from room to room, replacing the old bulbs one by one. When that was done, they switched on the thermostat, heard the furnace catch, and felt the warm air begin to blow from the vents overhead.

“Yay!” clapped Alain.

“Oh my god,” said Zenia, “that little freak might’ve been weird, but he sure saved us.”

“Don’t you feel bad for making fun of him now, Jeannie?” asked Alain.

“I’ll let you know after I complete a sweep for hidden cameras in the bathroom,” she answered.

***

It took a while, but eventually the house had warmed to a positively balmy sixty-eight degrees, and they could lose all the extra layers they’d had to bury themselves in. It was just in time, too; low, angry clouds rolled in as dusk fell, and the wind began to howl outside. Aline made hot cocoa for everyone, and the three watched the storm come in.

“We’re pretty lucky!” said Aline, sipping her cocoa.

“Yeah, that’s ugly alright,” said Jeannie, pouring a shot of rum into hers. “But the heat is really working, now – to be honest, I half-expected it to die on us again after a little while.”

“He was a weirdo, but I guess he knew what he was doing,” said Zenia. Then she squinted up at the lights and blinked. “Although these new bulbs are kind of weird, aren’t they? There’s something in the light I don’t like.”

“They do seem a little dimmer,” agreed Jeannie. “Probably to help keep the current, uh, low?” she grinned, sheepishly.

“Yeah, is that what they’re doing?” said Zenia, smiling.

“Volts! Transduction? Shit like that.” She answered, laughing. Wind rattled the house. The storm was building in strength.

“Well,” asked Aline, “we’re stuck indoors on a Friday night! Wanna watch a movie?”

“Sure,” said Zenia, cautiously, “but none of that slasher stuff you like so much.”

“Aww,” said Aline.

“No but seriously, Aline, why do you like that gross shit?” asked Jeannie.

“Well, what are you going to suggest? A rom-com?” she sing-songed.

“Hey! It’s an underappreciated genre!” complained Jeannie. Zenia turned on the TV, another goodwill find, while the two continued arguing behind her. She frowned at the screen.

“Hey, Siskel, Ebert,” she said over her shoulder. “Check this shit out!”

The screen was dark, but on – a black, blank screen with just a hint of static gliding along its edges. There was a hum or a tone, something distant that you felt more than heard, and then brief, obscure images would appear, black and white and grey, hazy and indistinct behind bursts of static. The three of them squinted hard.

“Is the TV broken?”

“There’s a picture there, what is it?” asked Alain, leaning forward.

“Looks like – ” Zenia paused, then laughed. “Ronald Reagan!”

“What!?” shouted Jeannie. “Get that fucking jackass off the TV! Reagan? Goddamn!”

His face swam up from the static, and he was talking, but there was just a chattering sound, like insects in the trees. The static on the edge of the screen bled inwards, and the picture got worse.

“Is he wearing a cowboy hat?” asked Alain.

“Are those mules?” asked Jeannie.

“It’s some kind of old rerun – that fuckin’ cowboy show he did, in the desert? Death Valley Days or something, right?”

“Pretty bad reception,” said Aline.

“Man, even so, I can’t stand to see that fucker, come on, change it.” Zenia fiddled with the remote, but it was on every channel, each new screen showing the same foggy line of mules crossing in front of some mountains, all frizzled and crackling and shaky.

“Aw man,” said Jeannie. “Is our TV busted?”

“It’s on every channel.”

“Hit it!” said Aline. “Hit the TV!” Zenia knocked her fist against its side. The screen went painfully white, then the static returned, slowly. But the sound had come back; it was crackling and popping like a bad record, but you could hear words.

“That ain’t Reagan…” said Jeannie.

–the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.” The voice was saying, a familiar voice, lugubrious and heavy.

“Hey!” said Zenia. The snow from the static began to thin.

“Is that –” said Aline.

“Fucking Nixon!?” exclaimed Jeannie. “What is this, History’s Greatest Shitheads? C’mon!” The static swirled and a dead-eyed Nixon, seated at the Desk of the President, leaned forward to stare into the camera. He continued talking.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.” Nixon said, his voice dolorous, even over the scratching of the static.

“Wait, what?” asked Zenia.

“Did he just say Neil Armstrong is trapped on the moon?” asked Aline.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood –” the jittery image of Nixon melted away, as did the voice. Zenia pushed through more channels of silent static, and then there were a rapid succession of shots, extreme close ups of faces and figures, nothing clear or definite and each scene lasting only a fraction of a second before, with a final flash, the image settled on a grainy shot of a starfield. In the lower left corner, in a bright white VHS font, were the letters “DSP/Intelsat-7/10-10-28.” In the lower right a clock counted off, the time given in GMT. Slowly, as they watched, a huge smooth object rolled into view, blocking the stars as it covered the screen. Then, there was a sudden flash and a piercing electronic screech.

And then the Price is Right was on.

“What the fuck was that all about?” asked Jeannie.

“Go back to the space thing!” said Aline. Jeannie flipped through the channels. The Price is Right, PBS, local Fox affiliate – all the expected stations. There was no sign of the other stuff they’d seen.

“Sorry, Aline,” she said. “That looks like that was it?”

“That space stuff was cool,” she said, sadly. “Real weird looking.”

“And what was with that Nixon stuff?” asked Jeannie.

“That sounded like a speech about the moon mission,” said Zenia. “But like, if it had failed. I know I read somewhere that they’d written something like that, just in case. I didn’t think they’d filmed it, though.”

“Why were we seeing it?” Jeannie asked. The three looked at the TV.

“Well, maybe we’ll just play a boardgame?” suggested Aline.

***

Later that night, as she brushed her teeth, Jeannie noticed something odd. She stood in the middle of the bathroom and turned slowly in a circle.

“Woah,” she said. As she was leaving and Aline coming in, she pointed it out. “Check it out Aline,” she said, pointing to the floor. “Three shadows.”

“What?” Aline gasped. “Oh, how weird! Zenia!” she called down the hall, and the third woman emerged from her room. “Look at this! Three shadows!”

There were, for each of them, three shadows, each about 120 degrees apart when a person stood directly under the light. It was an odd effect, and disorienting if you moved fast or spun around.

“That’s funny,” said Zenia, raising and lowering her arms, and watching six others do the same all around her. “Those bulbs didn’t look any different from normal bulbs.”

“It’s all of ‘em,” called Jeannie from the dining room. “Out here, in the kitchen room too. Three shadows! Man, that is weird.” She pirouetted, then shadowboxed.

“I like ‘em,” said Aline, nodding at Jeannie’s cross-jab combo and its many twins on the floor, as she went by to her room.

The only problem was that the bulbs seemed to really attract the moths, she though, as she reached for the chain to turn off her bedroom light. Four or five little black moths circled the bulb in frantic looping orbits. She shooed at them, although that did little to deter them. She switched it off and got into bed, and was soon asleep.

***

The morning was cold and bright. Jeannie, always the first to get up, stumbled into the kitchen and switched on the light, shaking her head at the three shadows. It was a little too early to be reminded of weirdness, but at least with the furnace working it was warm. While she made the coffee, she reached for the radio on the window and switched it on. Voices in the morning always helped her to wake up, even if the news was usually bad.

“ – one, seven, one, nine,” said a woman’s voice, measured, even, with just a hint of an unidentifiable accent. “Eight, three, eight, one, two. Three, two, seven, six, six. Five, eight, one, three, two.” It went on like that, ten or twelve different strings of five numbers each, then a pause, then the woman’s voice would say a simple phrase, like “Good morning, the weather looks fine today,” or “The buses are running on schedule,” each word carefully and clearly enunciated. Then it’d be back to more numbers.

“That some of that new wave experimental shit?” asked Zenia, coming into the kitchen.

“I don’t know what the hell this is,” said Jeannie. She spun the dial, but there was silence everywhere else. The only station she could fine was the woman, her numbers, and the phrases.

“Try AM,” suggested Zenia, sipping her coffee. The same result – silence everywhere except for a single spot along the spectrum, strangely enough the AM portion of the dial directly under the same spot where, on the FM dial, they had heard the woman. Here though it was a man’s voice repeating, in different order, single words in a language they didn’t understand.

“ – adeen, chityri, dva. Pyat’, sem’, shest’, adeen, dva. Vosim’, vosim’, devit, pyat, chityri’,” He said.

“What’s that?” asked Jeannie.

“Sounds like counting, but I don’t know in what language.” Then, the voice of the man paused. He recited a string of words, faster and in a more conversational tone, then went back to counting. The two women looked at each other and shrugged.

“Guess no radio for us, today,” said Jeannie, switching it off.

***

When Aline, who was always a late sleeper, rose an hour later, she found Jeannie grading exams at the kitchen table while Jeannie, sprawled on the couch, read papers.

“Mornin’,” she said, yawning.

“Man, you look like shit,” laughed Jeannie.
“I didn’t sleep well,” she said, running her hand through her short black hair. “Weird dreams, but I don’t remember any of them, actually. But not very nice ones.” She opened the refrigerator and stuck her hand in, then quickly pulled it back. “Hey, damn!” She peered inside. “Oh my God! Look!” She pulled out the milk carton and held it up. “Everything is frozen!”

She was right; everything in the refrigerator had been frozen solid, completely throughout. Beer cans had burst, vegetables and leftovers were hard and cold, and even the brine in the pickles had separated, murky salty brine trapped under a thick lens of ice. Zenia peered at the temperature setting; it hadn’t been changed, was still centered over a comfortable mid-range on the dial.

“This fucking house,” said Jeannie, shaking her head. “How long do you think it’ll be before the landlord gets us a new fridge, one that works?”

“My beers exploded,” said Aline, sadly.

“And there goes supper,” said Zenia, waving an iced zucchini.

“Guess we’ll have to make a grocery run later,” sighed Jeannie. She had a lot of exams left to grade.

***

The buses were running late because of the storm, so their grocery trip too longer than they’d expected. The grey afternoon was already fading into a dark evening as they walked from the bus stop homeward. There was a surprising amount of moisture in the air, framing the streetlamps in bright white haloes. The trio turned up 23rd and strolled down their block, backpacks full of food. Aline cracked open a beer and sipped as they walked.

“Think we’ll get snow?” she asked.

“Could be,” shivered Zenia. “This turned bad, fast, didn’t it, I wonder if –” she stopped and pointed up the road towards their house. “Hey!”

“Who left all the lights on?” asked Jeannie.

“Not me!” said Aline, “I was the last out, and I know I turned off the living room light when we went out! I know I did.”

“No, I remember,” said Zenia, frowning. “I was at the foot of the stairs and looking back up at you two. I saw the light go off, and then you came out and locked the door.”

When they got inside, it turned out that it wasn’t just the living room that was lit up – every light in every room was burning, bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen, everywhere. Even the basement light had been turned on, and no one had been down there since the little man had come to fix things, the day before.

“I don’t like that,” said Aline, emerging from her room. “Who did this?”

“You think the landlord came by?”

“He’s supposed to call before he does that,” said Zenia, frowning.

“It’s spooky,” said Aline, shivering. “Why were all the lights on! Someone turned them on, and it wasn’t any of us! Jeannie!” she said, hoping from one foot to the other. “Can I borrow one of your bats? I’m going to bed armed tonight!”

The rest of the night was uneventful – supper and then work in the evening, the three working side by side in the living room. The wind howled outside, and around ten, fat snowflakes started fluttering lazily out of the overcast night sky. As Aline prepared for bed, Jeannie brought her a selection of bats.

“Aluminum, or Wood?” she asked. Aline hefted the metal bat, her eyes sparkling.

As she shut the door, she noticed a single fat moth flying lazily around the strange bulb in the room, its three huge shadows swooping and wheeling against the walls. She flicked the light off and went to sleep.

***

The sound started small. A tapping, or a scratching. Rats in the walls, thought Aline. The sound grew clearer and more insistent. Tap, tap, scrape, tap, scrape. Then a fluttering noise, a heavy flapping like clothes on a clothesline in the wind. She rolled over onto her back and opened her eyes.

A moth, six feet long at least, it’s head as large as her own, stared down at her from the ceiling, its huge furry antennae twitching. The wings stretched lazily, velvet black except for two huge pale eyespots on their edges, ghostly eyes with narrow false irises, staring into nothing. She screamed, and the moth dropped down on her.

It landed hard, knocking the air from her lungs. Its wings flapped madly against her face. It was on its back, its legs kicking in the air and its antennae flicking side to side. It was heavy and soft and hairy, and powdery dust shed in thick choking clouds off of its body and wings and limbs with every movement. Aline pounded on its back with her fists, trying to get it off of her. She flailed her arms, reaching for the bat propped next to the bed. She stretched her fingers out, felt the cold aluminum, and gripped it.

The moth shifted and more stinging dust filled the air. She rammed the narrow handle of the bat against the moth’s side, and it rolled off of her and onto the bed. She scrambled aside, feeling the bed shift and heave under the giant moth’s weight. She turned and saw the huge compound eyes glittering at her, the frond-like antennae shivering. On her knees, she raised the bat overhead and screamed.

Jeannie, followed closely by Zenia, rushed into the room just in time to see the arc of the bat descend like the hand of God down onto the giant moth’s enormous head, obliterating it utterly, spraying Aline and her bed with a dark, foul smelling fluid.

“Jesus fuck!” shouted Zenia. Aline swayed and toppled backwards off the bed, the bat still clutched in her hands. Jeannie caught her, and Aline grabbed tight and held on.

“What the fuck is that thing?” asked Jeannie, staring at the twitching remains of the enormous insect on the bed.

“It is dead?” asked Aline, her voice muffled against her friend’s shoulder. Zenia flipped the light switch.

“Uh, yeah,” said Jeannie. The body was still convulsing, the huge wings opening and folding. There wasn’t much left of the head except a smear of unpleasant color, and the legs twitched in a particularly nerveless way, pronged feet dragging the bedspread inward with each shuddering contraction.

“Where did it come from?” asked Zenia, stepping gingerly around the bed, crouching to get a good look at it.

“It fell on me,” said Aline. “It was crawling on the ceiling and then it fell on me.”

“It’s fucking enormous,” said Jeannie, awed.

“It’s impossible,” said Zenia, shaking her head. “They can’t be that big, just physically, they can’t support the weight of their own body, they can’t respire. We gotta call someone!”

“Who?”

“I dunno,” said Zenia. “The Smithsonian?”

“Let’s get Aline cleaned up first,” said Jeannie.

“Oh, right,” said Zenia. “Sorry, I got carried away. Are you okay Aline? It didn’t hurt you?”

“No,” said Aline, staring blankly around the room. Her eyes seemed unfocused, like she wasn’t really taking in the scene. Jeannie and Zenia exchanged glances.

“Come on, lets get that gunk off you,” said Jeannie, leading her into the bathroom. She turned on the light, shivering at the uncanny number of shadows. Aline waved her hands in front of her, found the sink, and gripped its edge. Jeannie turned on the water. “What’s all this dusty stuff?” she asked, swiping her finger over Aline’s forehead and rubbing the fine powder between her fingers. It was gritty and sticky, and made her skin itch.

“It was coming off the moth,” said Aline, splashing water onto her face. She reached blindly for the towel, and Jeannie handed her one. “Ah, yuck,” she said, making a face. “Some got in my mouth.” She spat into the sink. “Ugh, I can still feel that thing on me, wiggling around.”

“Take a shower, you’ll feel better,” said Zenia from the doorway.

“We’ll be right outside the door,” said Jeannie, patting her friend on the head. “Don’t worry.”

“Thanks guys,” said Aline, smiling. “Okay, bath time.” Her friends turned to leave the bathroom. “Can you turn on the light, please?”

They stopped and looked at each other, then back towards their friend, standing directly under the light of the bulb overhead. Her eyes were wide, and unseeing.

“Aline,” said Zenia. “The light is on.”

“What?” said Aline. “No it’s not,” she waver her hand in front of her face. “I can barely see you two. Stop messing around Zenia.”

“Aline,” said Jeannie, her voice worried. “Zenia’s not screwing around with you. The light in the bathroom is on.” Aline swallowed, reached out and gripped the sink. Tear welled up in her eyes.

“I’m blind?” she sniffed.

“Maybe it’s just the dust,” said Zenia, rushing forward to hold her friend. “The dust from that moth.”

“It made my fingers sting a bit,” said Jeannie. “But it’s gone now.”

“Here, flush your eyes.” Zenia helped Aline bend over the sink. “And then we’ll get you to the doctor.”

“I’ll call an ambulance,” said Jeannie, heading towards the dining room table, where’d she’d left her bag while grading exams earlier. She switched on the light, and stopped, her body reacting to the motion in the center of the room before her conscious mind did. A chill trickled down her spine, and then she registered what was wrong.

There were three shadows stretching out across the floor, all coming together directly under the light in the middle of the dining room, where there was no one at all. The legs of the shadows just ran along the floor, all three pairs coalescing in empty space in the middle of the room. Jeannie stared. If she listened hard, she thought she heard breathing.

“Is the ambulance on the way?” asked Zenia, leading Aline carefully forward, and arm around her shoulder. The smaller woman still stared forward, her eyes wide, unfocused and still unseeing.

“Hold on,” said Jeannie, putting a hand up. “Take a look at this,” she said.

“What is it?” whispered Aline, reacting to the edge in Jeannie’s voice. Zenia looked where Jeannie pointed. It took her a moment, and then she saw it, saw the gently swaying triple shadow that belonged, apparently, to no one. “Who’s breathing so loudly?” asked Aline.

“Turn off the light,” said Jeannie. Zenia nodded, and reached for the switch. Darkness descended.

“Oh!” said Aline, her voice warm with relief. “That’s better! I can see again!” She gasped sharply. “Who’s that?” In the dark, Zenia could faintly see Aline pointing towards the center of the dining room.

Jeannie saw it too, and heard the sudden thumping rush of footsteps charging towards her. She instinctively dropped into a crouch, bracing her legs and tensing herself for the impact. She kept her arms up but wide – she didn’t want to find herself pinned.

The thing plowed into her; it was cold and damp, and together they fell to the ground. It wriggled and tried to rise, but she grappled with it, letting her reflexes take over, an arm high and one low, elbows and knees driving into the soft, clammy flesh of whatever had attacked her. She heard the thing’s gasping breath, felt its fists hammer down on her, but she couldn’t see it, not even as her eyes adjusted to the dark room. She could see the ceiling above her, see right through the heavy weight, even as she watched her fist sink into the side of the thing’s head.

One of her attacker’s fists caught her in the eye and rocked her head back, hard, against the floor, dazing her. She felt its weight shift, felt it trying to disentangle itself from her and stand up. She grit her teeth and lashed out with her legs at it tried to step away, felt them catch against its joints and heard the thing tumble against the opening of the hallway. It had fallen, briefly, and Jeannie launched herself onto its back.

It writhed under her weight. She braced her legs on either side of the invisible thing’s waist and wrapped her strong left arm around the front of the thing’s chest, drawing it up across the oily surface of its skin until she felt it suddenly narrow – the thing’s neck. She locked her arm hard, snapped it tight around the neck, and heard the thing gurgle in protest, felt cold hands grabbing at her arm. The thing was strong; it tried to stand. She heaved backwards, sending the thing off balance and both of them tumbling backwards. Her legs free, she locked them over the thing’s waist. It was pinned, and she was well-anchored. She tightened, felt its tendons against her arm and the inhumane pounding of its pulse against her skin.

It took a few minutes, and the thing struggled all the way to the end, thrashing and flailing, trying to free itself. It grew weaker, its attempts feebler, and the rasping breaths came shorter and shorter, grew wetter and more frantic, and then finally stopped. She held on a minute longer, but she felt the dead weight of the thing, felt its limbs slacken and droop. She tossed its body to the side.

“Fuckin’ hell,” she said. She was bruised all over, and her eye was swelling shut.

“Jeannie!” gasped Aline. She ran forward and hugged her friend, then looked down at the thing at their feet.

“Not to bad for not bein’ able to see, huh?” She grunted.

“Are you okay?” asked Zenia, feeling her way forward in the dark.

“You really can’t see, Jeannie? But it’s so bright in here!” said Aline.

“It’s pitch black,” said Zenia.

“Had to feel my way to its throat,” said Jeannie, wiping her mouth.

“That’s amazing Jeannie! But it’s good you didn’t see it, it’s awful, the way its face –” said Aline. Jeannie cut her off.

“Nope,” she said, simply. “I felt it; it was all slimy and cold, and the way its skin felt. Ugh! No, I don’t wanna hear what it looked like.” The light came on as Jeannie found the switch again. The two of them blinked, but Aline shook her head.

“It’s all dark again,” she said.

“This shit is too weird,” said Jeannie, shaking her head.

“What the fuck is going on?” said Zenia. She watched as Jeannie toed the empty space against the wall of the dining room. She shivered.

“Still there, but nothin’ to see.” She stood up and shook her head. “Okay, fuck this, let’s get out of here.”

“Where’ll we go?” asked Aline. Jeannie limped over to the table and grabbed her bag.

“We’ll get a taxi and a room, then come back in the daylight,” she said. “C’mon, I know we’re all in pajamas, but there’s coats and boots by the door. Let’s go. Now.” They nodded, and helped Aline over. As they got ready, Zenia shook her head and looked up at the bulb burning brightly in its socket.

“These bulbs have something to do with it,” she said, lacing up her heavy boots.

“They’re part of it,” Jeannie said.

“It’s that weird little repairman,” said Aline. “He did something to the electricity here. Remember those weird tubes? And then afterwards, everything was crazy! The TV, remember?”

“And the radio,” nodded Zenia.

“And the fridge goin’ nuts,” nodded Jeannie. “Yeah, it all leads back to him. All ready?” she asked the other two, who nodded. “Okay, let’s go,” she said, swinging the door open. Aline’s scream froze them in their tracks. She grabbed Jeannie and tugged her backwards into the room. She was staring out the open door in horror.

“What is that!?” she said, her voice high with panic.

“Aline, I don’t see anything,” said Jeannie. Aline gripped her tighter.

“You can’t go out there!” she said, her voice ragged with fear. “Can’t either of you see it?” Zenia and Jeannie stared out the door into the dark, windy night. It was cold, and it smelled like snow. The streetlamp glowed at the corner, and everything was quiet.

“What do you see, Aline?” asked Zenia.

“There’s just,” she pointed, “static! It’s like static, like the TV. Shapes and things in the static!” She clamped her hands over her eyes. “There’re moving out there, in the static! They’re watching us! Trying to get in! Oh! Close the door, please!” She sobbed. Jeannie moved to close the door, but Zenia stopped her.

“Wait,” she said. She picked up the aluminum bat she’d set down when they were preparing to leave, and then reached for the light switch. “Stand back,” she said.

“Zenia, no!” said Aline.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going out there, I just want to see something.” She flipped the switched – it went dark. Aline squeaked in surprise.

“Now it’s gone!” she said. She looked around the room, and adjusted her coat, finding the buttons she’d misaligned. “I can see in here fine now, but outside is back to normal. How about you guys, can you guys see anything?”

“Jesus Christ,” said Jeannie, staring.

“Goddamn,” said Zenia.

The door had filled with waves of static, like bad reception on the TV. Lines and stripes of grey and white chattered across the door, skipping and misaligning and sweeping like wind-driven snow. But it was what was behind the static that made Zenia close the door hurriedly, and sent Jeannie reaching for the light switch.

Shapes, huge, elongated shapes, vaguely human-like but distorted, too long or too wide or with too many joints in their limbs. Headless, or with too many heads. Dark forms without detail, but stalking on pin-like limbs through the night, just beyond the static. And they were moving towards them, moving towards the house.

“Okay,” said Zenia, getting her breathing under control.

“You saw them?” asked Aline, her voice small, her eyes wide and unseeing in the light of the room.

“Fuck yeah we did,” said Jeannie, nodding. “They were coming this way, too.”

“What are we going to do!?” whispered Aline.

“Barricade ourselves in one of the bedrooms, wait ‘til dawn?” said Jeannie.

“I don’t know,” said Zenia. “I mean, shit’s just been getting weirder and weirder as the night goes on. I’m worried…” she stopped and rubbed the back of her neck.

“That we might not last that long?” Jeannie nodded, looking at her watch. “It’s a little after one now. That’s a long way to morning.”

“The thing in the basement!” hissed Aline. The other two looked at their friend.

“That is where all this shit started,” said Jeannie. She punched her fist into her other hand. “I say we go down there and rip out whatever the fuck that weird little bastard put into the wall!” The door rattled. They jumped.

“We better do it fast then,” said Zenia.

They stood in front of the basement door, Zenia with the bat and Jeannie with the heavy ballpeen hammer from under the kitchen sink. Aline, who couldn’t see in the light but refused to be left behind on her own, clutched a sharp knife close to her chest.

“Okay,” said Zenia. “When I open the door, Aline, you look down there, see what you can see. If it’s clear, I’ll flip the light on, and then I’ll go first, Jeannie next, Aline in the back. You can hold onto Jeannie’s shirt or something. We get down there, and we do what we gotta; yank it out of the wall, bust it up, whatever.” The other two nodded. The house creaked around them, as if in anger. Zenia opened the door and Aline peeked into the darkness.

“Bright,” she said, squinting. She paused and looked hard. “I don’t see anything,” she reported. Zenia took a deep breath.

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s do this.” She flipped the light on, and started down the long steps leading to the still, quiet basement.

The stairs moaned under their feet, tired wood squeaking around old iron nails. Thick cobwebs clung to the slanted ceiling, ragged threads that stuck to hair and shoulders and clothes. Zenia waved the bat in front of her, trying to clear a way.

“Do you hear that?” whispered Aline.

“Like a hum,” said Zenia.

“Like a machine!” said Jeannie.

They stepped off the foot of the stairs and onto the dirty concrete floor of the basement. It was packed, mostly with their landlord’s junk – old boxes, metal shelving with rusted tools, stacked milk crates and wooden pallets, and ancient sports equipment, dust covered skis and golf clubs and a rotting volleyball net. It was cramped, and close, and usually smelled faintly of mildew. This time, though, there was something else in the air, something metallic or chemical, like ozone. The hum was louder too, an angry electric vibration in the air.

The circuit breaker was in the back of the basement, behind the stairs, and they had to go single file down a canyon of vintage 70s luggage and boxes of old decaying newspapers. It got brighter as they went; the basement bulb was ahead of them, lighting the breaker and the furnace and the water heater, all installed down here. They turned another corner and they were there, in a wide space with access to all the electric and heating equipment.

“Wow,” said Jeannie.

“What is it? I can’t see!” said Aline.

“No wonder that little guy was down here for so long,” said Zenia.

Copper wires tangled like vines over several long, grotesquely bent antennas sprouting like antlers from the wall around the circuit breaker. Electric tape wound round and round the outside of the box, holding in place several heavy, blinking machines, their wires tipped with small brass alligator clips that attached the devices to various circuits or knobs or plugs. The old circuit breaker lay discarded on the floor. In its place hunkered a huge black hunk of metal, like the carapace of some enormous beetle, and exposed in its innards were the purplish tubes that the little man had been so proud of, sparking with a strange, malevolent light.

“What the fuck did that little freak build down here?” asked Jeannie.

“I can kind of see the glow, all purple and green,” muttered Aline.

“Alright then,” said Zenia. She stepped forward, then drew her feet back. “Ugh,” she said, “it’s all wet.” The floor rippled where she’d stepped. And kept on rippling.

“Aw shit,” said Jeannie.

The fluid pooled together, boiling into a gelatinous column, dirty grey in color and shaped like an enormous gum drop, wide and squat. Through it, and distorted by the thing’s body, the lights of the malformed circuit breaker glittered and sparkled and flashed. The huge thing quivered, and from deep within it sparkled with its own malevolent glow. Suddenly, a fold cleaved the jelly’s surface near the top, forming a deep crevice in its tissue. This line split, suddenly, and a huge, watery eye emerged, blue and dripping, to stare at them.

“Fucking hell,” grimaced Zenia. “What do we do now?” The thing bubbled, and began to slowly slide towards them, the central eye blinking with each forward pulse of the gelatinous blob. Jeannie looked at her hammer, then at the bat in Zenia hand. The mass continued to flow slowly towards them.

“Zenia,” said Jeannie, gripping her by the shoulder. She pointed up, at the bulb. “Break the light.” The shuddering jelly crept forwards, the pupil of its massive central eye contracting with eagerness as it approached.

“We’ll be blind!” said Zenia, shocked.

“Us, but not Aline!”

“What?” said Aline. The mass oozed nearer.
“Just do it Zenia,” hissed Jeannie. “Hurry!”

The bulb popped, and the darkness in the basement closed in around them. The two women heard a horrible squelching somewhere in front of them.

“Aline!” shouted Zenia, “can you see?”

“I can, clear as day,” whispered Aline. “Ugh, look at that thing!”

“Is it still coming at us?” asked Jeannie, her voice tense. Aline watched the jelly, its big eye blinking, sliding left and right along the thing’s body. The jelly shivered, but wasn’t actually moving forward.

“No!” she said. “It, it looks confused!”

“Alright girl,” said Jeannie, holding out the hammer. “Get around it, and fuck that shit up!”

She gripped the hammer close, and sidled around the edge of the open space. The thing’s eye seemed to have caught some hint of movement, because the jelly quivered and shifted, but the movement was slow and unsure, first to the left, then to the right. Aline hurried, hugging close to the water heater, and got around behind it.

“I’m here!” she piped, her voice thin against the angry hum of the machine, and then, almost delicately, with the ball end of the hammer, she tapped one of the purple glowing tubes. The thin glass shattered with an angry hiss.

Somewhere, in the house above, they heard a pop, like a lightbulb bursting.

“That’s it Aline!” shouted Zenia. “Your doing it!”

She broke a second one, and there was another pop, louder, from upstairs. A third one, and a third pop. She looked over her shoulder. The jelly had turned its eye towards her, its bulk rippling with the effort. She shrieked, and swept the hammer through the remaining tubes, ten or twelve, each shattering with a satisfying burst of glass. She brought the hammer down against the circuit breaker, knocking it from the wall. She smashed the blinking, beeping boxes plugged into it. With a scream of fury she yanked the antennas from the wall. From behind her, a frothy gurgling sound echoed in the basement. Then it was gone, and there was only her heavy, labored breathing.

“Aline!” shouted Zenia.

“Are you okay?” came Jeannie’s voice.

“I can’t see a goddamn thing!” panted Aline in the dark, happily.

***

Three days later, Jeannie and Aline sat around a table in a bar not far from where they were staying with friends. They were several beers in, and happy. Jeannie’s black eye was almost gone. Aline was looking through rental listings on her laptop; they had a few good leads, but finding a place that had three open spots was tricky, especially in the middle of a semester.

The bell over the door rang, and Zenia walked in, shaking her umbrella. She hung her coat on the peg by the door. She scanned the bar, saw her friends, and went over to join them.

“Well,” she said, scowling. “Got off the phone with the landlord. He’ll let us break the lease, but he insists that he never sent anyone over to do repairs. He says he’s well within his right to sue us for unapproved ‘improvements,’ but that he’s decided against it.”

“Magnanimous,” said Jeannie, pouring Zenia a beer from the pitcher.

“Bad news though,” she said, raising her glass and sipping. “Since he’s convinced we hired an outside firm to do the work that ruined the wiring, he says he’s not giving us back our deposit.” Aline sighed and shook her head.

“Fucking landlords, man,” she said.

END

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