By Alexandra Salyer
Content Warning: Blood, Gore
The sickening snap of teeth slicing through bone hastened my pace as I flung myself down the hallway. Socks skidding against the corridor’s faded carpet, I careened into a corner, heart skipping a beat as the muffled thud of impact bounced off the wooden walls. I heaved a breathless sigh of relief as the following crunch confirmed the monster’s ignorance and then pitched over and gagged — reminded of what the sound meant. Throwing myself off the wall, I raced further down the hallway. I yanked at the handles of the numbered doors, but the curved bronze remained unyielding — a taunting reminder that the old woman and I were the only patrons staying on the fourth floor of the inn.
A reminder that I was now the only patron staying on the fourth floor of the inn.
My eyes widened as I reached the end of the L-shaped floor. A flash of lightning slashed through the darkness and revealed the withering label of MAINTENANCE on the furthest door. I darted towards its handle and slapped it. The handle turned.
Ear trained on the hinge, I eased the door open and tucked myself inside. Bottles of cleaning solutions formed a haphazard pile in one corner, and a stack of sheets congested the other. I inched the door closed. The moment it clicked shut, I grabbed a bottle of detergent and dove into the heap of the fabric. Flicking off the cap, I doused myself in the pungent scent of clean and buried myself deeper into the cloth. I didn’t know how that thing had found the old woman, or whether scent factored into it at all, but the lung-crushing screams that had ripped through the wall between our neighboring rooms told me that I needed to evade detection however I could.
The bright array of colors and the shining bells of the inn’s exterior gave no hint at the horror glutting itself only rooms away as I had rolled my suitcase through the parking lot under the dusk sky. The AUS inn was supposed to be a quick, forgettable overnight stay — a rest stop when an impending thunderstorm forced me to halt my cross-country drive back home from college earlier today. The woman behind the desk had been pleasant, nonchalant, as she handed me the key to my room. The only attention-drawing moment had been the casual remark she said, as her eyes scanned over a text: “Just a warning: this building is, like, sort of old and needs a few repairs, so some of the doors, windows, and locks might jam.”
A wet squelch seeped through the door, followed by a whining wheeze. I tucked my knees closer to my chest as light steps grew closer. My stomach flipped.
I had only caught a glimpse of the creature. When the first scream had torn me from the empty peace of slumber, I had crept out of my room. The door next to me, the door of the old woman with whom I had exchanged a short but sweet goodnight, stood slightly ajar. I peered through the crack, feet already flying across the hallway before my brain could properly process what it had seen. What I could remember would be a returning character in the plotlines of my nightmares.
Sickly yellow skin stretched paper-thin over prominent bones and a cavernous stomach. Ghostly blue bruises dotting a concave, too-long neck and chapped, greying lips. Flaxen scar tissue covering a massive chest. Heavy purple sagging dull, lifeless eyes. Slimy green oozing from two red, raw cracked nostrils. Louder than the pounding of my feet, I remembered its sounds better. The crunch of its teeth splintering skin, muscle, and bone. The hacking coughs that rumbled through its protruding ribs and shredded its too-long neck. The raspy breaths that whistled through its throat.
My fingers clenched around the blankets as one of the hoarse croaks shook the maintenance door. Squeezing my eyes closed, I shallowed my breathing and waited. Minutes passed, as the hacking and wheezing knotted my fingers tighter and tighter into the fabric before finally, a series of quick, heavy booms signaled the monster’s departure. Yet, I found no relief. My eyes remained slammed shut, and my breaths stayed light and unsatisfying.
Hours or minutes swiftly crawled by. Stagnation, isolation, desperation — all have a funny way of messing with time. My muscles cramped and my mind clamored. The pile of blankets, the four walls, the stillness that had all seemed so safe, so secure — they all now seemed like stepping stones on the path to madness. The need to move seized my atrophying limbs, and though possibly lethal to my life, I could not help but stand up and creak the door open.
Peeking my head through the crack, I found the hallway’s shadows beautifully empty. With dainty paces, I crept through the corridor. Fearing the ding of the elevator, I slid into the stairwell. It too was barren. Tiptoeing down the stairs, I squinted through the inky blackness and blinked as the tiniest drop of honey-gold light flickered in my gaze. Soft and warm against the harsh white flashes of lightning, the light came from the third level. Other cars had sat in the parking lot. Perhaps, there were other survivors. I listened for the sounds of the creature, but when only silence replied, I left the stairwell and slunk onto the floor.
“Hello?” I whispered.
“In here,” came a muted hiss from inside the inn’s single conference room.
I hurried to the door as more voices spoke.
“Quickly! Before it comes again!”
“Do you want to kill us all? It’s too risky. Don’t open it.”
The door creaked ajar, and I slipped through the crack. As the door was shut, an onslaught of harrowed faces greeted me. A thirty-something woman, the receptionist, and a teenage boy beamed with relieved smiles. A pair of bob-wearing, middle-aged blondes scowled. An elderly man and another man fitted in a suit wore neutral boredom.
“Jamie, yes? Are you alright?”
I turned to find a greying, bespectacled man at my side. He held a small candle. Its yellow light dimly lit the somber meeting hall. “Yes. It didn’t find me.”
“Meg said there was another woman staying on the fourth floor with you.” He gestured to the receptionist. “I heard a scream. Is she…?”
I swallowed hard. “It’s only me now.”
Smile drooping, the thirty-something woman, dressed in an oversized t-shirt decorated with teaching puns, whimpered a choked cry.
“My apologies for the crudeness, but it’s imperative for our collective safety,” the bespectacled man said. “Did the creature consume her?”
“Yes, then. And were you able to see what it looked like?”
I relayed everything — sights and sounds.
The man’s face pinched. “It is as I feared,” he said. “Everyone gather around, and keep your voices low.”
With some grumbles from the bobbed blondes and the suited man, the group sat at the bespectacled man’s feet.
“I am a monster-researcher. I have spent the last thirty years of my life traveling the world, studying the hidden, deadly creatures that roam this Earth. If what Jamie reports is true, then I know which of these beasts is currently lurking in this inn: a Plaga,” he said. “Plaga are carnivorous creatures who feed on human flesh and grow in lethality the more humans they consume.”
The teenage boy inhaled sharply and scooched closer to the elderly man. “What do we do?”
“The best option would be to simply wait here. The Plaga’s hunting capabilities are inferior to many beasts, and this room has shown promise in hiding us from it. It should starve to death in a few days provided that we don’t feed it anymore.”
The suited man snorted. “You want us to wait? Waste days of our lives hiding from a creature that probably doesn’t even exist?”
“You heard the old woman’s scream just as we did. You heard what Jamie saw, what Jamie heard. How could you say that it doesn’t exist?” the thirty-something woman, a teacher perhaps based on her shirt, exclaimed.
“I say it doesn’t exist because how could it? The old woman probably tends to overdramatize, and Jamie was scared. It’s easy to see things that don’t exist when you’re scared.” The man stood up.
“Why are you even here if you don’t think it’s real?” the teacher demanded.
“I heard a strange noise, investigated, and found you all. I’ve only stayed here because he,” the suited man pointed at the researcher, “told me to. But you’re right. I paused a call for this, and I’ve wasted too much time on this already. I need to go back.” He turned and walked towards the door.
“Please stay!” The monster researcher cried softly. “I heard the scream. It was a scream of death. You all need to trust me, lest you become its next meal.” He adjusted his glasses and glanced around the room, gaze landing on a pantry. “There is an alternative to staying. The monster locates its prey primarily by scent. It’s not as safe as waiting it out, but I’ve heard stories about others escaping Plagas by using a medical concoction called PMJ, whose smell makes the wearer relatively invisible to the monster. I know how to make this concoction. We could apply the salve and hopefully walk out of the inn undetected.”
The teenager spoke, “I don’t think I could stand just waiting, but I like that plan.”
“I like the plan, too, but there is one problem,” Meg, the receptionist, said. “This inn is old. During storms like this when the wind is bad, the doors and windows jam. With the weather outside as bad as it is, I don’t know if we could get out.”
“Is there anywhere we could feasibly escape?” the researcher asked.
Meg cocked her head to the side. “There is a covered window in the basement. We had to replace it a while back, and it’s sheltered from the wind.”
“How many floors are there in this inn?” one of the blondes asked.
“That’s not too far. Once applied, the concoction does lose potency overtime, but we should be able to reach the basement before that is a concern,” said the researcher. “Alright. Is everyone good with this plan?”
The teacher, teenage boy, Meg, and I all nodded — majority rule with the researcher. Muttering under their breaths, the blondes grumbled, but did not directly protest. The suited man scoffed and shook his head but did not protest. The elderly man kept his blank countenance.
“Plan 2, then. Wait here while I create the concoction.” The researcher paddled towards the pantry and started pulling out various bottles of liquid. Mixing the bottles’ contents in a bucket, the man poured out a few drops of the green ooze onto his hand and sniffed it.
“It is ready.” The bespectacled man lifted the bucket and carried it back to the group. “Everyone coat yourselves.”
Dipping my hand into the container, I grimaced as the grainy ooze clung to my fingers. “How does this connotation work?” I asked the researcher.
“It mimics the smell of dead Plagas,” he said. “Plagas have no taste for their dead.”
Cupping a handful of the goop, I slathered it across my body. Silently, the teacher, teenager, and Meg followed, smearing the repellent across their skin.
The blondes leaned over the bucket and gave the concoction a sniff. Their faces twisted in disgust. “Absolutely not. I will not be putting that on my body,” the shorter of the pair snapped.
The researcher’s brows knotted. “But the likelihood of the monster finding you is much higher without it. It will also lead the monster to the rest of us.”
“I know it doesn’t smell great, but it’s not that bad,” the teacher said. I sniffed my arm. While the pungent sourness wasn’t great, I would take the smell any day if it meant that I wouldn’t have to hear the splitting of my own bones or anyone else’s ever again.
“If you all have it, that should be enough. Personally, I don’t trust it yet on my skin. I’ll wait,” the other chimed in.
“If I see this supposed monster, that’s when I coat down with that stuff,” the suited man said. “These clothes are too expensive to ruin over nothing.”
The researcher scrubbed a hand down the side of his face. “I advise against it, but I can’t force you.” He lifted the bucket towards the elderly man. “Here, and then we can go.”
The elderly man shook his head. “I don’t need it. God’s watching over me. If it’s my time, it’s my time. If not, He will protect me.”
“Grandpa!” the teenage boy protested.
“But you will be endangering the group,” the researcher said.
“If it’s our time, then it’s our time,” the elderly man said simply.
The researcher’s shoulders sagged, but he argued no further and coated himself in the ooze.
“Hopefully, the rest of us will be enough,” he said. “Is everyone ready to leave?”
“About time,” remarked the suited man.
Pressed up against the door, I listened with everyone else for the warning booms of the creature’s run. The soundless darkness compelled us forward, and we tiptoed down the hall and into the stairwell. Only our uneven exhales pierced the quiet. We climbed downwards, leaving the third level and reaching the second level, yet as I turned to descend farther, the suited man diverted from the stairs and walked to the second-floor entrance.
“What are you doing?” the researcher asked.
“There’s something I need from my room,” he answered.
“What about the monster?” I asked, suppressing a shiver as a phantom of its wheezing hack reverberated through my ears.
The man dramatically swung his head back and forth. “What monster? I don’t see one. I don’t hear one. I’m grabbing my things, and I’ll find everyone after.” He pulled open the door and disappeared inside the second-floor hallway’s shadows.
The old man hobbled towards the door as well. “I have belongings I don’t wish to leave unattended as well.”
“Grandpa, no one is going to take your stuff. We can get it later,” the teenage boy hissed, grabbing onto the elderly man’s arm.
The grandfather shrugged off his grasp. “It’ll be fine. I’ll find you all later.” He, too, vanished towards his room into the inky darkness.
“What do we do?” The teenage boy rushed forward and grabbed the researcher’s jacket.
The researcher sighed. “We continue on. We can’t control their actions. We can only hope that we all escape safely,” he said. “Follow me down.”
The teacher wrapped an arm around the boy’s shoulder and guided him forward. Lightning bolts crashed against the window’s glass and illuminated his wobbling lip as we wound farther down the spiraling steps. Coming upon the cusp between the first floor and the basement, a series of thunderous strikes brought a slicing stop to our exodus. Though muffled through the walls’ plaster, I knew immediately the source and location of the pounding; the monster was racing towards the stairwell from the first floor. A flash of white burst through the first-floor door and jumped to the level above. The rasping coughs rattled the steps as the flash charged into the second floor.
The teacher slapped her hand over the boy’s mouth. The pair shuffled closer together. I backed into the wall and held my breath.
A masculine shriek engulfed the inn. The boy ricocheted in the woman’s arms as he dashed forward, only to be yanked back to safety.
Tears welled in the boy’s eyes as he pushed away the woman’s hand. “Please,” he begged. “Please.”
The researcher muttered a swear and adjusted his glasses, sliding the frames up the ridge of his nose. “Stay here and coat down again.” He poured a handful of the liquid over his head and ran down the stairs.
Dropping to my knees, I shoveled the concoction onto myself as more hacks and crunches echoed through the inn. The monster’s blatant oversight hastened my movements. If the ooze did not smell so inedible, I would have chugged it for the possible extra protection. Meg did the same as the teacher coaxed the boy to lather down again with her. Scooping a handful, I raised my arms towards the bobbed blondes.
“Here. I’ve been fine with it. It’s safe. Take some,” I offered.
With perfect synchronicity, the women turned their noses up at my elevated hands. “We’d like to do more research of our own.”
A new cycle of thuds sent me flying to the corner to cower, but my heartbeat slowed as I noticed the fainter sound of the steps. The boy’s eyes widened, and he crept to the edge of the staircase.
“He’s back!” he whispered.
With the suited man draped over his shoulder, the bespectacled researcher heaved himself down the last step. He set the suited man on the ground and sagged against the peeling wallpaper, breathing heavily.
“His leg!” Meg gasped, covering her mouth with her fingers.
I squinted at the suited man, and bile shot up my throat as I saw what had caused the receptionist’s outburst. Blood spurted from the gnawed-off end of the man’s right thigh. The jagged tip of bone was all that hinted that the leg had once stretched longer.
“My grandfather?” the boy asked. “Is he still there? Is he…?”
The researcher grimaced and shook his head as the vile crunching continued, the sound answering both the boy’s question and confirming the current location of the monster. The boy collapsed into the teacher’s arms. Tears streaked down both their faces as she stroked his curls.
“We need to move. The creature will only be better at hunting after feeding. We need to leave before it’s too late.” The researcher shed his jacket and tied it around the suited man’s leg, staunching the blood flow. The researcher then took the bucket and drenched the man’s suit in its ooze before hefting the wounded man back over his shoulder. “Is there nothing I can say to convince you to use the protective concoction?”
The blondes looked away, drawing another weary sigh from the researcher, but he gritted his teeth and pressed no further. Together, we shuffled down the stairs, ignoring the pained grunts of the suited man, and came upon the door to the basement.
The weathered door opened to reveal a large room crammed to the brim with molding cardboard boxes and old rusting hardware and machinery. At the far end of the level, across the cold, stone floor, multiple massive kitchen appliances were packed and stacked on top and next to one another. The apex of the pile scraped the ceiling, and just around it, bright white fractures would intermittently flush the basement in luminescence.
“Is the window behind there?” the researcher asked.
Meg nodded grimly.
Crossing the basement, I studied the heavy pile and shoved the nearest appliance. Despite the best efforts of my trained muscles, not one machine moved an inch. The teacher and the boy joined my side, pushing at the rough metal with their hands, ramming it with their shoulders. After resting the suited man against the wall, the researcher aided our efforts, too, though the blonde women remained still, firmly on the other side. Even with all of our strengths combined, the mountain of machinery did not shift, but I could feel a looseness underneath my palms. A couple more hands and the appliances would move.
“We need your help,” I begged the women.
They rolled their eyes over crossed arms, but a deliberation passed through a shared gaze between them. I smiled, as one sighed and stepped forward, but just as the other took her first step, a lung-strangling boom clattered the ceiling, followed by a whistling sniff.
I froze. Another deafening boom slaughtered my grin. Another sent me cowering against the heat-sapping metal of a stove. The others curled around me, with the blonde women shrinking into their side’s crevice.
As the booms grew louder, grew closer, the researcher grabbed the bucket and slid it across the stone to the women. “Put it on,” he whispered. “Quickly! You’ll doom us all.”
But when a boom roared outside the door and the women still turned their noses up at the concoction, I knew the only way it would touch their skin was if the creature ate it after digesting them.
SNAP! The door swung open, splintering against the wall. As if I had already been killed, my lungs ceased to work as I beheld the terror of the Plaga. It planted its monstrous body between us and the women. Its wheezing gale of a breath tore at the blondes’ hair and clothes, and they quivered, clutching one another as it slunk closer.
“It’s not too late! Use the concoction and run!” the researcher yelled.
I turned towards the other guests. “Push!” I blurted, smashing my body into the stove. Just as before, it taunted me, immobile under my hands. If anything, it was I who was being pushed, being pushed closer to the monster.
Yet, I did not stop, and the others did not either. Instead, we tried both — crying out desperate pleas for help while begging the machinery to slide.
“I have a wife! We have a baby on the way! They need me!”
“Please. It’s safe! I promise!”
“I’m supposed to drive my mother to the doctor tomorrow. She needs me!”
“Help us, please!”
“I don’t want to die! I’ve barely even lived!”
I kept crying and kept pushing. It was only when I heard the sickening snap of teeth slicing through bone that I slumped against the stove and counted the minutes that would be the last of my life.