Jack ordered a pizza, but instead got a killer
“Coming,” Jack said, wondering who knocks instead of ringing the doorbell. On the other side of the fisheye peephole stood a mid-twenties woman with olive skin, almond-shaped eyes, and uncombed, long black hair, tapping her foot to the rhythm of impatience.
She pressed her eye to the peephole. Her iris expanded inside a turquoise pupil, as if she were scanning Jack through the one-way lens.
“Fantastic.” Jack opened the door wide to accommodate the extra-large box and reached into his back pocket for his wallet.
The woman stepped inside and dropped the pizza box. She planted her palm on Jack’s chest with a loud thunk and pushed him back with such force that Jack flew onto the couch on the opposite side of the living room. Had the couch not been there, he would have become airborne and crashed through the window. She unzipped her leather jacket and withdrew a long knife from a scabbard strapped in front of her chest.
The knife’s blade curved like the crescent moon, and pictographs danced on its bone-white handle.
Jack melted as far into his couch as he could. “Who are you?” he whimpered.
The woman stomped through the living room, crushing the pizza box under her boot. She straddled him and angled the blade against Jack’s throat. He tasted the metal through his skin. “That’s the question we’re here to answer.” A menagerie of accents rose and fell in high and low tones, like all the animals in the rainforest crying out together.
“What?” Cogent thought eluded Jack. His lungs had difficulty processing oxygen. The woman rotated the knife, drew it back, and punctured Jack’s cheek with the blade’s tip, just deep enough to start a slow drip of hot blood that rolled down his neck and under his shirt. “I don’t understand. Who are you? You’re not the pizza person. What do you want with me?” Jack waited a beat before continuing. “Take my money. Take anything you want.”
“You’re right about me not being the delivery guy. He’s dead in your building’s basement. I severed his carotid artery.” She ran her finger along the flat side of the blade. “I get the impression that people don’t visit that utility room often, so we have time. But not an unlimited amount of time.” She slid the knife around his neck, a trail of static electricity sparking blue on Jack’s flesh, and then circled the blade above his belly button as if on the precipice of carving a hole. Jack watched her arm’s muscles for twitching, a sign his murder was no more than a second away. Visions of the surgery’s pre-anesthesia days scurried into his mind: patients screaming, the surgeon cutting, brawny assistants holding down the patient’s legs, arms, and head.
How much does a knife in the belly hurt? How long does the pain last before death? Jesus, she already killed somebody tonight.
Jack tasted tears on his lips.
She slapped him.
“Pay attention, Jack. I have questions.” The woman gathered Jack’s shirt in her hand, partially blocking his airway. “You’re Jack Halloway, the novelist? The horror writer?”
“Yes,” he croaked. His head bobbed like a limp marionette. Is she angry at me because I wrote a character that looked like her or somebody in her family? Is she here for a madman’s revenge?
The biggest fiction in a novel is the disclaimer that any resemblance between the characters in the book and living people is a coincidence. All novels’ characters are based on real people, but most authors are good at disguising their characters’ origins. Yet nothing about this woman looked familiar, not her long black hair, oval face, or button nose. Her peculiar accent didn’t trigger any recollections. But there’s no accounting for insanity.
“I’m sorry for anything I may have written that upset you.”
“You haven’t written anything that has upset me.” Her words sounded like a snarl. She brought the knife back to Jack’s neck, where it hung in the air like a guillotine blade.
“Why are you here? What do you want?” Jack tried to keep the tone of his voice calm in the hope that calmness was catching.
“I want you to write.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I want you to write,” she repeated. “If you write, you’ll live through the night.”
“Okay.” Jack’s heart beat like he’d run a hundred-yard dash. “I’ll write whatever you want.”
“Good. That’s what I want to hear.” She motioned to the left. “Is that room your office? Where your computer is?”
“Yes.” Jack wondered if his leg muscles were strong enough to transport him from the living room to his office.
“Up you go. Go and start writing.” She grabbed Jack’s belt and hoisted him onto his feet. Her turquoise eyes momentarily morphed green as she passed under the halogen ceiling lights.
“Start writing what?”
She spun Jack so they stood eye-to-eye. Heat radiated off her skin like a summer sun-baked building releasing its fire.
“Horror. I want you to write what you write best, a shocking, eerie story that keeps people from sleeping. A story about creatures that couldn’t possibly exist. A story you pluck from your dark imagination, the kind of tale your publisher must pay you well for.” She waved her hand toward the Rolex on Jack’s coffee table. “I want you to write your best work ever…And you will, Jack, I’m sure you will.” She nodded toward the Stephen King photograph on the wall inscribed with, “Jack, thanks for nightmares and sleepless nights.”
She pulled back the curtain covering the living room window. Outside was a couple hailing a taxi, a lone man walking al German shepherd, and a bus pulling away from the curb while a woman ran toward it flailing her arms. No police in sight.
She shoved Jack into his office.
She pricked her thumb with the knife’s tip, brought her finger to her lips, and rubbed the blood over them. With the swiftness of a striking rattlesnake, she grabbed Jack’s wrist, pierced his thumb, and pulled it to her lips, rubbing his open wound against her blood and saliva. It all happened faster than Jack’s nerves could register pain.
She’s crazy. My life is in the hands of a lunatic.
Blood drops stained his keyboard. “Can you give me a better idea of what you want me to write? It would help.”
“Believe me, Jack, if I knew what you should write I wouldn’t be here. It would be done already.”
“February third, my birthday.” Jack considered that for a moment. “Is that your birthday, too?”
“I don’t know. Enough talk.” She waved the knife. “Start writing.”
He reached for the table lamp. She swatted his hand. “Keep it dark.”
She leaned over Jack from behind, put the knife to his throat just below his Adam’s apple, touched his ear with her lips, and said, “It’s going to be a long night, Jack. Writing equals living.”
“I still don’t understand. Please tell me what exactly you want me to write.” His trembling fingers couldn’t find their landing spots on the keyboard. Goosebumps covered his flesh. Jack’s hearing became superhuman. He could hear rats scurrying between the walls and roaches crunching on microscopic bits of fallen food.
“It’s like I already said, Jack. This is the last time I’m going to tell you. Write horror. Where your mind takes you is what I want to read. I can’t tell you more because I don’t know more.” She ran the flat of the knife along Jack’s ear.
“Okay.” I’m in Stephen King’s Misery. “What are you going to do while I write? Writing takes time.”
“Nothing.” She leaned against the wall to the side of Jack’s desk, positioning herself below a neon clock whose red, blue, and orange tubes wrote “24 Hour Diner.” She crossed her legs, placed the knife to her side, folded her hands in her lap, and slowed her breathing as if she were meditating.
Jack glanced at the woman, the knife, and then back at her. If she falls asleep… Before he had time to complete the thought, she said, “I’ll stab your heart through your back before you’re even out of the chair. Focus, Jack.”
She can see me with her eyes closed. Jack knew that wasn’t possible.
She returned to her trance-like state, seeming to take a breath only once a minute.
Two hours later, she drew a sharp breath, snapping the air into her lungs as if she had just surfaced from freediving. She unfolded her legs and rose up from the floor without the aid of her arms. “It’s time. Let me see what you’ve written.”
“I’m not nearly done,” Jack protested. He wasn’t even close to a complete story. His characters were thin and unformed, robotic entities that had yet to develop sentience. Everyone was still a brunette with pouty lips, a hulking man, six feet tall, muscular and toned — mere place holders for beings yet to be. Fido was a friendly golden retriever and Kitty a ginger cat with the softest fur. Poorly chosen verbs, grammatical improbabilities, spontaneously generated adverbs, cliches, and sentences that ended abruptly, like a highway terminating on a cliff, filled his pages. Jack wasn’t even sure this story fragment was scary. It was certainly awful prose.
Does it matter that the story is incomplete? Would it make a difference if she thought it was the next Dean Koontz novel? This woman is the ultimate editor. If she doesn’t like what you’ve written, she kills you. Jack chuckled and thought, What a great idea for a novel. If only I live to write it. Jack had seen her face, he could identify her in a line-up. What possible reason could she have for setting him free? None that Jack could think of. This evening had only one trajectory. It wasn’t a matter of if. He will die tonight.
The woman loomed over Jack’s shoulders as she read, her hot breath bubbling his blood. She clicked her tongue.
Jack gripped his chair’s armrests like he was trapped in a plane at the mercy of a violent thunderstorm. His eyes tracked the knife’s reflection on his laptop’s screen.
Digging a grave is hard work. In the summer, sweat pours down your forehead, and the smell of rancid, moldy soil makes you gag. It would be better if the boss let you dig at night, but he won’t.
Winter is worse because the frozen ground forms a nearly impenetrable force field of ice and glacial earth. What can be done in the summer in an hour by one man takes two men seven hours in the winter.
But spring and autumn are different. In spring and autumn, you pop on headphones, and your shovel is like a hot knife and the earth is butter. You don’t get the workout in autumn and spring you do in the summer and winter, but if I want exercise I’ll go for a jog. Music is key. Music makes the time pass quickly. In spring and fall, especially, with big band tunes, mushy ground, and plenty of sunshine, it’s easy to get carried away and dig deeper than six feet.
That’s how I found them, a boy and girl doll. They were ten feet down in two small shoe boxes decorated with Disney character stickers. The dolls had forked tongues that stuck out and feet like an owl’s talons. Pinprick holes filled the spaces where ears should be and…
“Write something different,” she hissed.
“How do you mean different?”
“Just different. Start anew. Pretend this garbage story never existed. Let these characters and this plot die.” She jabbed the knife’s handle into his back. Jack detected an emphasis on die.
“Okay.” His armpits soaked his shirt. He took in shallow, unfulfilling breaths.
Sometimes she let Jack write for an hour uninterrupted, sometimes for no more than five minutes. Instead of resuming her Zen-like pose, she paced, twirled her knife in an irritated way, looked out the window, and tapped her foot.
She stopped Jack at random intervals, read, shook her head, and said, “I feel nothing.” She directed him with vague, unhelpful words: “This isn’t what I need,” “This isn’t getting me to where I want to be,” “Your story isn’t working.”
When Jack asked for clarification, she slammed her fist into his belly. He didn’t ask again.
Jack was the proverbial monkey at the typewriter. Given an infinite amount of time that monkey would eventually type all of Shakespeare’s plays. But Jack didn’t have forever. He had an ominous sense his clock would stop at dawn.
She rapped the back of his chair with her knife handle. “Keep going.”
Like I have a choice.
“Stop!” she said after another hour had passed. “I will look now.” It was 4:12 a.m.
Nancy and Nina Block, twelve-year-old twins, were chasing each other in the woods behind their Atlanta, Georgia, house after school. Their mom said they could play for twenty minutes before homework. Mom was a believer in outdoor activity and sunshine.
“Oh wow,” Amy said, pointing to the odd plant beneath the birch tree. “It glows.”
Nina stepped forward to get a closer look. “It does! Cool! That looks like a pussy willow,” Nina said, pointing to gossypine protrusions that dotted the plant’s circumference.
Amy asked, “Do you think we can cut it and take it home? It’s big, but it’s probably not heavy.”
“Mom and Dad would be angry if we did that. ‘Let nature stay in nature,’ Dad always says.”
“But we can touch it. It looks soft,” Nina added.
Nina rubbed the cotton-looking part of the plant with her fingertips. She screamed. Her fingers disappeared into the plant, the flesh and bone vanishing as if dissolving in a vat of acid. Nina lost her balance and fell face first into the plant’s leviathan leaves and dissolved.
Nina couldn’t scream anymore, but Amy did.
“That’s not it. The setting and characters are wrong. I don’t recognize anything. You’ve written a blank. Start anew.” She swiveled Jack’s chair around and put her face to his, their lips almost in a kiss, while holding the knife against his neck, the now familiar but still terrifying sensation of death against flesh. “Be creative.”
I am being fucking creative. You try being creative under the threat of extinction.
Yet Jack was grateful that he hadn’t yet written what she was looking for, whatever that was. The longer it took to write her story, the longer he stayed alive, a condition that could end at any moment and soon would.
Jack wondered how many times she’d killed before tonight.
Jack stood in front of two doors, each marked with a sign that read, “Doom.” If he didn’t write whatever it was she wanted, she’d plunge her knife into his heart. If he satisfied her twisted need, she would murder him, too. Jack’s only chance was to overpower her and mortally wound or kill her. But how? He had no martial arts training, and his gym membership was nothing more than a recurring charge on his credit card. He couldn’t remember the last time he went biking or hiking, and bowling a few times a year didn’t make him an Olympic anything. She, on the other hand, was slender and athletic, with toned muscles. The word lithe came to mind.
The word killer also came to mind. The pen is not mightier than the sword, especially because he only wrote on a keyboard and didn’t even have a pen on his desk. A pen. Fuck, I could have at least tried to defend myself if I had a pen. A pen to the eye, a pen to the neck. People defend themselves with pens in novels and movies all the time, so there must be some real-world basis for that.
I have to try something.
I’m sane, she’s not. How do I turn that into an advantage?
I can do this. How many fight scenes have I written? How many have I read? Think, Jack! What determines who wins and who dies in a fight? Jack made a mental list. Item one: Surprise. Launching the first blow was sometimes all it took to win. But how could he surprise her because swiveling his chair around would be like flashing a neon sign that said, “I’m attacking”?
Item two: Superior weaponry. I can whack her in the head with my laptop. Jack’s shoulders slumped. A laptop didn’t feel superior to a six-inch knife. Besides, he’d have to unplug it first, an awkward movement that would give away his plan.
A list of if onlys crowded Jack’s brain: If only I had a dog, if only I kept a gun in my desk drawer, if only I’d taken a self-defense class, if only I could make my characters come alive and protect me.
Jack’s fingers were tired, and his thumb still throbbed from when she had stabbed it and mixed their blood. An odd heaviness rolled along his nerves from his thumb through his hand, arm, and body.
She let him write for another two hours. “Let’s see it.” She pulled Jack’s chair to the side to get a closer look at the laptop’s screen.
She’s distracted. This is my chance, my only chance. He could elbow her — elbows are sharp and powerful — punch her face, then kick the knife out of her hand, Jason Statham style. Jack’s throat tightened. Could he? What choice did he have? His stomach knotted. Jack dropped his hand to his side where she couldn’t see it and curled his fingers into a fist. On the count of three. Ready…one…two…
She struck like a viper, wrapping her fingers tight around Jack’s wrist, nearly cutting off his circulation. She snapped the knife to Jack’s neck.
“Don’t,” she hissed. “You won’t survive.”
Jack gave up. He knew the manner of his death. The precise minute would be up to her.
She slapped her hand on Jack’s desk with enough force to levitate his laptop. “Delete this and write something different.”
Something bubbled inside of Jack, as if he were infused with a cocktail of fear and boldness. His anxiety was a life force of its own. His leg muscles tensed, and his pupils went wide. I’m going to defy her. He held his breath, counted just to two, and jumped out of his chair. Before he could take a single step, she grabbed his arm, twisted it behind his back, and punched Jack in the kidneys, propelling him into the chair.
She growled and swept his laptop off the desk. The computer flew across the room, and crashed into the wall, chipping off flecks of plaster.
“Get it,” she commanded.
After Jack put the laptop back on his desk, he said, “The screen’s cracked.” He jabbed a few keys and sighed, “But it still seems to work.”
“The clock’s ticking, Jack.”
Jack wrote on automatic pilot, his subconscious guiding his fingers.
Thirty minutes later she said, “You’re done. I will look now.”
The deep blue of the new day glowed outside Jack’s window. Jack wondered if he’d still be around when the sun rose over the horizon, not too many minutes from now.
Achual’s father prepared him for the day the sky caught fire.
When he was thirteen-years-old, his father, Queche, the tribe’s leader, took him to the summit of Mount Huaynaputina, where the gods lived.
At the base of the mountain, Achual asked, “Father, is it safe? Are we allowed to tread in the realm of gods? I fear they will take vengeance on any mortals who trespass into their world.”
Achual’s father pressed his finger to his lips and took his son’s hand, which he held for the eight-hour climb. Achual’s father often communicated wordlessly, preferring his son draw his own conclusions about the world.
Achual wasn’t sure what to expect at the top of Mt. Huaynaputina, though the end of his and his father’s lives was a possibility. Images of giant beings — some male, some female, some with flowing capes, others half-naked — wielding golden swords, swirled in Achual’s mind. He envisioned some gods with one eye, and some with as many as eight.
Achual squinted as they approached the summit, in part because of the sun’s increasing brightness, but also because he thought that if he didn’t see the gods, they would leave him alone.
He succumbed to curiosity and took in the alien-looking landscape with eyes wide open.
“I know, Achual. Where are the gods? Why don’t they present themselves? Why don’t they strike us dead for invading their realm?”
“Achual,” the woman said. “Achual.” She ran her finger over the name on the screen. “Father.” She shuddered as if a sudden, winter wind found its way through her clothes.
Achual and Queche stood at the rim of the volcano’s crater. Steam hissed through cracks in the rock. Achual leaned over and peered into the crater.
“What do you see?” Queche asked.
“I see the realm of demons.”
“That’s right, my son. This is not where the gods live. The gods would never abode in a place that mortals could reach. Look carefully.”
Achual peered into the fiery realm. His skin burned and his lungs scorched. He stepped back.
His father continued, “One day demons will fly out of this hole. They will appear as fire and burning rock. They will destroy everything. When that day comes, if you are the tribe’s leader, you must save as many as you can.”
“Save them how?”
“Leave. Run. Be a bird in the wind and get as far away from our village as you can.”
Jack’s captor grabbed his arm, lifted him from the chair as if he weighed nothing, and sat. She placed the knife on Jack’s desk, halfway between where she sat and Jack stood. Jack eyed the knife.
Achuel led the three dozen survivors away from the exploding mountain. They marched for ten days through dense rainforest, a procession of ragged bodies and souls, their feet bloodied, and skin marked by a hundred insect bites. Each day, one villager lost their life, as if that were a sacrifice for saving the rest. Each death was as unique as it was terrifying. An anaconda suffocated and ate Achual’s younger brother, quicksand took a child, a poison arrow shot by an unknown assailant felled the oldest living villager, a puma dragged away an infant at night, lightning killed a new mother, a man fell off a cliff while searching for food, fire ants swarmed one of Achual’s favorite warriors, a fever took that warrior’s sister, a young boy died of poisonous berries, and a scorpion killed a villager.
The woman’s eyes swiveled as she read, her attention singularly focused on the monitor.
Jack twitched his toes. He flexed his fingers. Could he reach the knife before she did?
The sky was still on fire when Achual herded the remaining villagers into the cave at the edge of the rainforest. They hiked deep into the cavern until even the strongest among them was on the precipice of collapse.
Darkness enveloped them. The villagers huddled close to stay warm.
Ahcual had promised water and he had promised food and Achual was determined to honor those promises. “Stay here,” he instructed the remaining villagers. He strapped five empty jugs around his shoulders and walked even deeper into the cave, knowing that if he didn’t find water he wasn’t coming back. After a time, he found an underground lake, where he filled the jugs.
“I bring water.”
A chorus of thank-yous quavered through dry, cracked vocal cords.
“What about food?” cried a woman in the darkness. “We’re hungry.”
Thousands of luminescent worms followed Achual from the underground lake to the encampment. They were brown, six inches long, and as thick as a man’s thumb, with raised segmentation that divided them into five parts. The worms’ eyes were tiny drops of turquoise.
Achual knelt and scooped up a dozen worms with one hand. More crawled along his body, glowing tubes illuminating his legs, chest, back, arms, neck, and head. With his thumb and forefinger, he plucked one of the worms from his hand, tilted his neck back, and dropped it into his open mouth. Achual chewed the worm while his tribe watched. “Cacao! It tastes like cacao!”
One of the children chortled, which brought about a cascade of laughter. The woman who had asked about food said, “All right. Let’s dine.”
The tribe feasted.
When approached by hungry people, the worms didn’t slither away. Instead, they crawled around and over everyone. Their small, turquoise eyes shined like just-lit torches in the moment before they were eaten.
The more worms the cave dwellers consumed, the stronger they became. Their cuts and broken bones healed. Lava burns disappeared. A boy who had walked with bowed legs since childhood ambled normally. A young man who had become bald at an early age grew hair again. A woman whose belly burned whenever she ate was no longer in pain.
When the last of their torches extinguished, they discovered they no longer needed fire to see. A preternatural, green glow filled the cavern as fully as the noon sun fills a meadow. They could see in the dark.
Tiny, brown worms swam in their eyes’ liquid interior.
With their survival ensured, their lives comfortable, Achual married Mayna.
Mayna gave birth to a girl, whom they named Shiwiár. She was the first child born of two cave dwellers.
Shiwiár was born in the caves in 1601. As an infant, when she cried, her arms withdrew into her body, her legs merged into a single fleshy tube, her head flattened, her eyes turned turquoise, and she grew to nearly ten feet long.
As she became older, Shiwiár’s transformations became less frequent. Only when her emotions were heightened did she change.
When Shiwiár was eighteen, Achual and Mayna decided it was time for the villagers, who now included seven children who had been born in the caves, to leave. They established a village on the coast of Peru.
Mayna, mother, she whispered. Shiwiár turned to Jack. Glowing, brown worms roamed in her eyes.
“In k’aaba’ Shiwiár. Tene’ le ch’úupalo’ le áaktuno’ x-no’lo’obo’ ka K’a’abet in suut.” The ancient tongue flowed from between Shiwiár’s lips.
Shiwiár screamed, her voice like a hundred wolves howling in unison. The living room television screen exploded, sending glass in every direction, barely missing the two of them.
Her arms withdrew into her body. Her ears and nose disappeared as her head and neck flattened. Shiwiár’s bones cracked, as she slid off Jack’s chair.
She turned to Jack, her words muffled as if she were speaking under a layer of mud. “Níib óolal. Thank you. You found my story. K’a’ajs. I remember now. I will find my brothers and sisters.”
“How — ?” Jack stopped himself. There would be no answer because a thick patch of wrinkled, brown flesh now completely covered what had been her mouth.
Jack stood and followed her into the living room. Her brothers and sisters, the other worm children.
Shiwiár slithered across the floor, propelled by her rapidly undulating body. When she reached the window, she coiled like a viper, transferring all her energy to her muscles. She sprung up and crashed through the window. Shiwiár crawled down the building’s brick side, following the path of shadows created by the morning sun.
A haunting wind whistled through the close-spaced apartment buildings.
Jack’s thumb still pulsed from when Shiwiár cut him and mixed his blood with hers. He shook his thumb and blew on it, as if his breath could ease the pain.
After Shiwiár was no longer visible, he exhaled a long breath of relief. Jack caught his reflection in the window. Tiny worms wriggled in his eyes.