A short tale of horror by Aaron Margolin
I moved into my first apartment when I was nineteen. I had lived in Chicago my entire life, same with my parents. Instead of going to college after High School, I got a job working as a desk receptionist for a major law firm in The Loop. It was good enough money and after a year of saving I got myself a one-bedroom apartment in Irving Park.
The apartment was an old, second floor studio that lacked air conditioning and smelled of hot. Behind the kitchen was a porch that, despite being mostly rotten, was perfect for watching the Brown Line train go by.
And that’s what I did. After work I would stop by my favorite sandwich shop, pick up a strawberry milkshake, and sit outside in the humid summer air. The crickets chirped in the alley below and the mosquitos buzzed in the trees above. The occasional train would pass, shaking my apartment, leaving me waiting for the porch to finally crumble.
This became my routine. Wake up, work, milkshake, porch. All through the summer, I never broke the habit.
It was the last Friday in August, the hottest, stickiest time to be in the city. Every day reports of people passing out from dehydration or becoming erratic due to overheating were scattered all over newspapers. People were on edge and constantly bothered by the weather, but that’s normal for Chicago.
I was walking to the train after work; the late afternoon sun had started to set and painted everything between the neat rows of skyscrapers a rich golden hue. I was rolling up my shirtsleeves when I saw a man sprinting wildly from a distance.
He was balding, maybe in his late fifties or so, screaming gibberish. I noticed his suit looked way too big on him, the fabric waving in the wind as he sprinted. He got closer to me. I noticed that after every few steps he would throw his head over his shoulder, as if he was being chased. He was skinny, very skinny, too skinny.
When he was only a few feet away from me, he turned and we made eye contact. He grabbed my left arm and yelled in my ear. His voice was dry and raspy.
“Do you see them?! They’re chasing after me! Don’t- Don’t let them get me!” As he screamed, I noticed his thin lips were red with dried blood. His eyes were dry and his tongue was yellow and cracked.
I tried to pull away from him, but he tightened his grip and dug his nails into my arm. I opened my mouth to speak but he yelled over me.
“You have to help me!” he pleaded and turned away from me to look in the distance.
“You have to- She-“ but he cut himself off, looked down at my arm and pulled away to reveal that he drew blood. He paused for a moment then quickly moved to press his gaping mouth against my wound.
“Get the fuck off me!” I yelled, finally finding my voice and detaching myself from him. The man stumbled back and began to break down. “Oh god, you won’t help me… No one will help me.” The man slurred and raised his hands to his head.
The loose sleeve of his suit slid down to reveal his bony arms, covered in hundreds of swollen bumps. I was only able to inspect them for a moment before the man sprinted away from me, head in his hands, still screaming.
I bought myself an extra large milkshake. I deserved it after such a strange encounter. Later, as I sat on my porch and examined the man’s nail marks, something caught my attention from above.
I watched it hover lazily above me. A mosquito. Its wings vibrated in the muggy air with a soft, high-pitched drone. In the summer, the city was full of little annoyances that made themselves present everywhere. Among the spiders, the ants, the silverfish, and the mosquitos, I hated mosquitos the most; how impossible it was to avoid them when the city reached its hottest and most damp.
This particular mosquito seemed to pause for a moment when I spotted it. Right after coming into my sight, the bug slowly descended from above. The hypnotic spiral trajectory of its flight path lulled me, causing the straw from the milkshake to part from my lips.
Then it landed, right between the nail marks on the center of my arm. I instinctively raised my right hand to smack it, but something stopped me. A pull in the back of my head made my arm refuse to come down. My body felt no problem donating a little bit of blood to feed this insect. I lowered my hand down to my side and watched as the mosquito pierced my skin. Normally when a mosquito bites you, you don’t feel it at all, but maybe because I knew it was there, what it was doing, I felt the slightest pinprick upon insertion. I watched as the mosquito’s wings rested and its abdomen grew. It only took a moment, maybe four, five seconds for the insect to become engorged. The whole time I felt like I should swat it, even after it was done drinking. But the light pull in the back of my head said, “No.” So it flew away, falling just slightly after take off, drunk with blood.
In a blink, the mosquito was gone. Just as it arrived on a whim, it disappeared, and I was alone again. I looked down at my arm, the mosquito had left its mark and I could see a single white bump rise.
I felt the air around me vibrate. The crickets stopped chirping. The Brown Line was sure to be coming down the tracks. But the train never came. Instead, an uncomfortable silence settled around me. No wind, no crickets, no train, not even the sound of my own breathing. I dared not move as I did not want to be responsible for ruining such a rare quiet moment.
A sound cut through the silence. A buzzing. Maybe the mosquito had returned?
No, it was the naked light bulb that hung in the center of the kitchen. From where I sat outside, I could see it clearly through the open back door. It never made a noise before, or maybe I had never noticed. As time went on, the sound got louder and louder, like the hum of little wings getting closer to my ear.
The louder the buzz, the more vibrant the light became. What started as a pale blue fluorescent glow shifted to a rusted orange. Then from orange, the bulb shone a grotesque red and coated the whole kitchen.
The bloody light spilled from the kitchen onto my lap outside. I remained still, mesmerized by the humming light. But the buzz was so loud; I felt it inside my head.
The noise became too much to bare, I shut my eyes and the crescendo came to a sudden stop. With a metal ‘Ting!’ and the crackle of filament, the buzz was killed and everything was silent again. I found my breath and opened my eyes. Darkness. A surge must have short-circuited the bulb. Now only the moonlight that bled through the boxelder leaves near the kitchen window illuminated a few tiles inside.
I slowly lowered my cup to the ground and cautiously stood up to take care of the broken bulb. The floorboards below me moaned with my extended, slow movement.
What just happened?
Am I ok?
I felt an overwhelming need to change the bulb, so I could get out of the unnerving darkness. I stepped forward toward the door, but stopped when I heard something from inside.
Light breathing, like some tiny animal. High pitched with erratic little whimpers. Then I saw it. Grasping, curious fingers pulled a bloated, infant’s body into the moonlit spotlight on the kitchen floor. Its skin was muted purple and its eyes, unopened due to underdeveloped skin sealing the eyelids shut. It had two thin slits for a nose above cleft lips that dripped thick saliva and mucus.
As it moved closer to me, a hidden appendage attached to the baby’s stomach came into view. Its umbilical cord, coated in a creamy paste with candy cane spirals of veins lead to an unknown source, lost in the darkness.
I stepped forward, contemplating if I should pick up the child or not, but as soon as I moved, the umbilical cord was pulled tight and the baby was dragged into the darkness. It laughed.
I took two cautious steps forward and formed a fist, as if whatever may greet me in the darkness, whatever pulled the baby away, could be dispatched by a fearful teenager’s right hook.
When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw a woman’s silhouette standing in the kitchen. She shambled forward and shivered like she had a bad fever. Her skin hugged her bones with rough, leathery toughness. I immediately smelled her, like sulfur and iron, a hint of flowery sweetness under the stench, like the memory of perfume. Her thin black hair was in patches, bits and pieces of her scalp fallen off to reveal bare skull. In her hands she held the child tightly to her shriveled breast.
The skin on her feet was so thin that for each step she made, the bones of her feet tapped against the tile floor. Her breathing came like a whisper or a wheeze. It was dry and feral.
I took a step back; my legs felt weak and my bug bite began to itch.
When she came into the moonlight I could see her wilted, hazel eyes and a perpetual grin enforced by rigor mortis. Every inch of her was covered in dried blood, coagulated and crusty. She had wrapped her child’s umbilical cord around her, the throbbing and beating connection draped like a hellish robe. I could see the cord contract and almost swallow; it was sucking from the mother to give to the child. The pull in my head buzzed her name: Red Mother.
Above Red Mother swarmed a halo of mosquitoes, easily over a hundred in a hazy cloud. Their tiny wings beat together, a discordant choir of high-pitched drones. But not a single insect fed from her. Instead, they loomed above as she slowly stalked me.
I took another step back, my sweaty right arm fell limp against my side. I could not take my eyes off her.
The floorboard creaked loudly under my weight, but all I could hear was Red Mother’s dry breathing below a cacophony of buzzing. I went blank. Any attempt at a thought to do anything more than instinctively back away was blocked by the mind-numbing hum.
Red Mother’s breathing quieted. The cloud of insects lowered and whispered in her ear. The infant faced me. Though it had no eyes, I felt it see me. Then, the infant’s mouth opened hungrily and Red Mother began to hobble toward me with great haste, shrieking loudly. The mosquitos descended too, pitching their hum to a violent decibel.
As I doubled over to get away, I felt my lower back slam against the railing. The rotted wood gave way with a mealy crunch. I had no time to catch myself before I felt my body fall away from Red Mother’s path and land on the brick alley below. I tried to force air back into my lungs with panicked gasps. Red Mother peered over the broken porch.
The halo of mosquitos descended from her head and made their way to me. I tried to get up, but a sharp pain from my back shot through my whole body. I screamed. The mosquitos were nearly on me; I could see Red Mother through the bugs with her loving smile. I shut my eyes and winced in agony. Then everything was black and the buzzing stopped.
When I opened my eyes, the sounds of the city came back. My sight adjusted and the broken balcony two stories above me was illuminated from the kitchen. Red Mother was gone, so was the baby, so were the mosquitos. I felt my heart beat faster as panic set in. My vision blurred in and out of focus; the back of my head felt wet.
My consciousness faded. I heard the twitch of small wings and turned my head. At first, I thought I saw Red Mother stand over me, her child attached to my arm, hungrily sucking at my wound. Then I blinked and the mother and child disappeared. In their place, hundreds of mosquitos rested on my outstretched arm. They drank deep and filled up like ripe berries. All I could do was watch as they silently fed.
I woke up in a hospital bed. The air was still and sterile. My lips were cracked and dry, my tongue felt heavy. A cold pain ran down in my right arm, an IV drip full of syrupy blood hung above the bed. My stomach churned. I gagged and cold, acidic fluid sprang from my stomach. My arm throbbed, my head felt like it was about to explode, but my legs… Why did I feel nothing in my legs?
I looked at my arm and saw hundreds of bites coating every inch of skin. They had perfect symmetry; the darker indents in the centers made each bite a wide eye that glared back at me. My vision started to blur. The bites began blinking and darting around erratically.
I started to hear the high-pitched buzzing again. Was it the lights? Or maybe the mosquitoes were back? Is Red Mother here? I needed to get out of the hospital. They were coming. I wanted to get up. I needed to get up. I tried to get up. Why wouldn’t my legs move?
I looked up at my IV.
It was empty.
I sucked it dry.