The creature drifted down a dark alley. He was a shadow, a fragment of a thought, a flicker at the edge of someone’s vision.
Once, he had been a man. But that was so long ago that the creature no longer remembered what it was like to walk the world as a human, to feel the heat of the sun or the cool kiss of the breeze. Pieces of memories would float through his mind on occasion — a warm smile, a tinkling laugh, the sweet smell of fresh-baked bread. He couldn’t remember names or faces, and had long ago stopped caring that he’d forgotten.
Darker memories held more sway — screams and the stench of blood, piercing pain and chilling fear. Those lingered and blended together so he could no longer tell if the blood and screams and pain were his or his victims’.
The creature didn’t know what had turned him into the monster he now was. Maybe a vampire had drained him dry and left his shell-shocked soul wandering the earth. Maybe the devil had taken his soul and his carcass had been left behind to prey on others. Maybe he’d simply died and hadn’t wanted to leave the shackles of the world.
He didn’t know. He didn’t care.
He moved through the alleys and streets unseen, though he wasn’t stealthy. He moved boldly, without fear. What did he have to fear? Nothing and no one could harm him now. No one could touch him. No one could see him. No one could stop him. It was exhilarating — and empowering.
He didn’t know why he stalked the streets, searching for a victim, hunting. Maybe he did it to survive. To live. To endure. To remind others, though they couldn’t see him, that he still existed.
Whatever the reason, he liked it. He liked the thrill of moving among the humans, of picking out a target and preying on their fear and doubt. He liked their pain, their pleading, their terror. He liked bringing them their death.
The streets were full tonight. It was a holiday. He didn’t know which one. He didn’t keep track of months or years, and he’d long ago stopped feeling the changing of the seasons, the cold bite of winter or the boiling heat of summer. He couldn’t even tell if it was day or night. The world around him was always a silvery, monochrome haze. Time meant little to him now.
He moved smoothly through the crowds, scanning faces that looked much the same to him. He was looking for something — a shiver, a flicker of fear, a twitch of the cheek — something to tell him his prey knew he was there. Something to tell him who his next victim was.
He found his target. A young man jumped as the creature brushed past.
The hunt was on.
Tim had a beer in his hand and one in his belly. He wasn’t buzzed yet. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be. He wasn’t 22 anymore, after all. He mostly drank now because he liked the rich flavor of a good brew.
He glanced down at his watch and sighed. It was still early on Halloween. He’d reluctantly promised to go out with his friends — who were well on their way to epic hangovers — and put in appearances at a few parties. He wasn’t sure if he would make it. He thought wistfully of going home, curling up on his couch and watching TV with his cats.
“I’m getting old,” he muttered.
No one heard him. The crowd was thick and noisy, and he’d already lost sight of his buddies as they’d stumbled from one bar to the next.
Would they notice if he just slipped away? His friends would give him hell if they found out he’d bailed to watch reruns on Netflix. But at the rate they were going, none of them would make it into work the next day anyway.
He made up his mind, dumped his half-finished beer in the nearest trash can and headed for his car. It was only a few blocks away. He’d be tucked in at home and munching popcorn with Hamilton and Lilac before anyone knew he was gone.
He’d taken just a few steps when he felt something ice-cold brush his arm and saw a dark, formless shadow flicker at the corner of his eye. He jerked away and spun around, looking for whatever had touched him — but there was nothing.
“You’re being silly,” he said to himself. “Spooked by the atmosphere, that’s all.”
Still, he walked a little faster. He silently cursed himself along the way, but he felt something — some nameless dread curling up in his belly. He glanced over his shoulder. Nothing. Just milling crowds, laughing and drinking. Perfectly normal. What was he —
It flashed in front of him, a dark creature, flickering and indistinct, looming, reaching —
Tim stumbled over the curb and fell into the street. The shape vanished. A few people laughed, assuming he was drunk. He wished he was.
He looked around, frantically searching for — what the hell had it been? Whatever it was, it was gone.
He got to his feet. His knees were shaking. His palms were scraped and raw. The stinging pain brought him back to himself. The pain was real. The pavement was real. The crowds, the people, the cool air and stench of spilled beer — those things were real. That other thing wasn’t. It couldn’t be. It had no substance, no shape. It was just a fuzzy figment of his imagination.
He needed to get home and wind down. He’d be fine once he was away from the buzzing party.
He headed for his car. He didn’t bother to take his time or slow his pace. He hurried along the sidewalk, pushing through the crowd, muttering a vague “excuse me” or “sorry” as he went.
The farther away from the hive of activity he got, the more his anxiety grew. The fear was rock-hard in his stomach, spreading icy fingers through his limbs, latching on and refusing to let go. His hands were shaking, and his legs were turning to rubber beneath him.
The dark thing danced at the edge of his vision, flashing and fading, pulsing.
He was just a block away. He cut down a deserted alley strung with orange and purple lights. He’d come this way dozens of times. He was close to safety now. He could see his car in the parking lot. He fumbled for his keys and dropped them.
Cursing, crying, he bent down.
When he looked up, it was there, standing bold and tall in front of him. It was black and smoky, fuzzy at the edges, its shape vaguely, grotesquely humanoid.
Tim couldn’t stand. He couldn’t run. He couldn’t move or scream. Cold crept through him, and he shook uncontrollably as he knelt on the ground, the gravel biting into his knees. The creature stepped forward.
“What … what are you?” Tim said — or tried to say. His throat choked around the words.
The creature didn’t pause as it towered over him. It reached out. As darkness swept through Tim, he heard a horrible, raspy voice in his head.
Tim stalked down the street. He was a shadow, a half-forgotten thought, a flicker at the edge of someone’s vision. He was darkness. He was death.