We begin in August, when the summer nights are ripe and voluptuous. Moths beat against the window, seeking solace from the darkness. August brings violent thunderstorms; cut power lines draw the darkness closer. We cup a flickering flame and make love that brings purple bruises.
Softly we have come to understand that the creature is waiting. It searches for sustenance and tracks the scent of blood.
So we build.
Our apartment is on the third floor, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. There are brittle windows, penetrable cracks. The glow of our lights can be seen from a distance.
What we need is wood.
Eli goes to the lumberyard. He comes back with loads of plywood, hauled in the back of our station wagon. Sarah helps carry the plywood up two flights of stairs.
In the parking lot, our downstairs neighbor is walking her poodle. She waves, smiling curiously. One of us nods, the other smiles; our arms are filled with planks. It’s late afternoon and the air shimmers with dripping heat, attracting pregnant banks of clouds.
We board up the windows from the inside. The nails are long and sturdy, sinking into the wood stroke by stroke. Eli hammers his thumb and curses in a private tongue. Sarah kisses the swelling bruise and brings ice.
Between the glass and the plywood, we keep the blinds lowered, so no one on the outside can see the barrier we’ve erected between the two of us and all of them. No one can know about our construction project. They wouldn’t understand. They don’t know the creature that terrifies us.
On the bedroom window we build a special pair of shutters—heavy plywood affixed to the wall on steel hinges, a hook attached to latch it shut.
After the plywood is nailed into place, we make another trip for building supplies.
There are cracks in the wood, insect-sized crevices between the walls and the boards. We know that the creature can make itself very small. Through fissures and fault lines it finds its way, following the scent of love.
We seal the edges with epoxy, just to be safe.
But this is just the beginning.
September comes, and we both go to deliver the rent check. Our landlord eyes the apartment number on our check before sliding it into his folder. “You know,” he says. “The lady below you two. She mentioned hearing some hammering.”
“Sorry, we were hanging some pictures,” Sarah says. She’s always the quickest on her feet.
“We’ll drop by to apologize,” Eli adds.
We’re sorry for leaving her exposed to the beast, but we can’t protect everyone.
Together, we make another trip to the lumberyard and buy materials until the station wagon is full.
We buy unwieldy two-by-four beams and stacks of four-by-eight softwood plywood, C-grade. We listen patiently while the gray-bearded sales attendant explains about I-joints and trusses, and then we buy some more. We buy weighty sacks of dusty concrete that we struggle to lift. We sort through bins of small hardware, letting tiny screws and miniature bolts and two-inch nails sift through our fingers. Sarah loves the smooth clinking and rattling; it reminds her of a bucket of colorful beads. Eli loves the crisp smell of metal; it reminds him of his first set of keys.
We buy all this so we can build our safe room.
The safe room will be in the area that formerly served as a dining room—to the right of the kitchen, across from the front door. We move the table and chairs into the living room, blocking the TV. We don’t have time to watch it, anyway. We have too much to build.
We mix the concrete in the bathtub. We do the hammering on Tuesday afternoons, when our downstairs neighbor is at her water aerobics class.
All September, we build, working slowly and steadily, filling evenings and weekends. We take our work seriously. We measure twice and cut once. One of us makes neat pencil marks on two-by-fours and plywood. The other sorts hardware into sandwich bags with sticky labels.
All the time, we feel the creature’s presence closing in.
The finished safe room is four feet tall, six feet wide, and six feet deep—just big enough for the two of us to fit, side by side. It smells comfortingly of chilled concrete and off-gassing polyurethane.
Eli makes a midnight run to the grocery store and buys foil-wrapped protein bars, plastic tubs of syrup-rich fruit cubes, six-packs of Gatorade in rainbow colors. Sarah drags mounds of dingy feather pillows and musty sleeping bags into the safe house, in case we need to spend the night.
The next day, we’re more focused. We flip carefully through our reference books and make a list of items for our survival kit. Then we spend the day shopping, and buy them all.
A basic first aid kit: Bactine, Neosporin, gauze, tape, bandages, a thermometer, and a cold pack.
A red Swiss Army Knife: a can opener, a bottle opener, a screwdriver, a hook, and a three-and-a-half inch blade.
Five gallons of bottled water.
And two oxygen masks.
October has come. Winter is closing in and the darkness comes early. Sometimes, on especially quiet nights, we imagine we hear the beast’s footsteps, pacing beneath our window.
We buy locks. Padlocks, combination locks, bicycle locks, door chains.
We buy more concrete.
We buy fifty yards of braided nylon rope, dandelion yellow.
We buy antique furniture, sturdy pieces built from ancient oak, nicked and scratched but still heavy as ever. It takes us two hours to get our new chests and dressers and chairs up the stairs. We heave. We strain. We pull. We grunt. We wipe salty sweat from our eyes and suck blistering fingers. Our downstairs neighbor comes out to watch. “You could have had it delivered,” she suggests.
“We’re on a budget,” Sarah says.
When we finally get the furniture upstairs, it takes another hour to arrange it into barricades. Eli already has the maze pencil-sketched on graph paper, so we only have to move the pieces once.
Afterwards, we’re so tired and hungry, we order three cheese pizzas. We meet the delivery driver in the parking lot; it’s better that way. But we end up eating only two.
We make love inside the safe room.
Eli adores Sarah’s wide blue eyes. Sarah delights in Eli’s square wrists. Eli cherishes Sarah’s tiny hands. Sarah treasures Eli’s knobby knees. Eli longs for Sarah’s sharp collarbones. Sarah savors the sound of Eli’s beating heart.
Inside the safe room, we hear every rustle and creak.
Sometimes we talk about the creature. Neither one of us knows what it looks like, exactly.
Sarah imagines it as a pale reptile, covered in thousands of shifting scales the color of dirty snow, bloody spit, spoiled milk. She imagines it has bony claws and a long dry tongue that cuts with a razor sharp edge. Privately she’s named it Belb, but she’s only spoken this word once.
Eli imagines it as a dark monster, coated in sheaths of matted, dark hair the color of rotting wood, black fungus, a sticky oil spill. He imagines it roars like a bear, showing rows of cruel teeth that drip with saliva. Privately he’s named it Reesher, but he’s only spoken this word once.
Maybe the beast takes different forms.
All we know is that it will come for us, the way it came for Eli’s parents, the way it came for Sarah’s. Perhaps it’s already come for the lady downstairs; maybe that’s why she doesn’t seem afraid. An emptiness lingers about her. An incompleteness trails her.
We can’t bear it.
“We’ll keep it out,” Eli promises. “We’re smarter.”
“We’ll keep it out.”
We use the yellow nylon rope to build our rope ladder. Eli was a Boy Scout, so he knows how to tie the knots. Sarah has a library card, so she checks out a book to brush up on what Eli’s forgotten.
We fasten the top of the ladder to the inside of the bedroom window, the one with special shutters. We add a padlock to the flimsy latch.
Now, whenever we need to get out, we can throw the rope ladder outside the window and climb down. Only one can go at a time; there has to be someone to guard the window and let down the ladder. It’s safer that way.
We’re almost ready.
November has arrived. The trees are gaunt and bare. The darkness is oppressive, coming early and staying late. The world smells like ice-hard earth.
The creature is here, too.
We catch glimpses of it. It prowls in the parking lot, flattening itself beneath cars. It lurks behind the bank of mailboxes, searching for clues. It scales the trees, trying to get a look inside our boarded windows.
We don’t have much time.
We make a last run for supplies. We check each one of the rope ladder’s knots. We inspect the boarded windows for cracks. During the daytime, we turn off all the lights, and use epoxy to seal up every last pinpoint of light.
Then, we mix one more batch of cement.
Eli brings it out to the living room in bucketfuls, muscled arms tight. Sarah scrapes it across the front door with a cement trowel, skinny arms taut. Together, we seal all the cracks, until the front door is covered in concrete.
We let it dry, then we slather on another layer to strengthen the seal. When that layer dries, the wall is complete.
Now we’re safe, inside a house without doors.
We go from room to room and check each one of the windows—all boarded up tight. The last window we check is the back window with the rope ladder. The ladder is looped up inside, the shutters locked in place.
We check the maze we’ve built, inspecting each piece of furniture. Each is in its proper place, bulky as a battleship. We run our wondering fingertips along the cool, hard concrete encasing the space where our door used to be. If the creature wants to get in now, it will have to blow this wall down with dynamite.
“That’s not its style,” one of us says.
“No, definitely not,” the other agrees.
Our work is finished.
We stand in the center of our apartment, dark as a desert but for the two flickering candles on the coffee table. We hug each other. We laugh. We sigh. We let the relief slide down our fingertips and trickle through our toes.
Then we stand back and eye one another curiously.
“What do we do now?” Eli asks.
“I don’t know. What do you want to do?” Sarah says.
“I don’t know,” Eli says.
We’ve been working on our construction project for so long, we’ve forgotten how to do anything else. What did we used to do to pass the time, before we started building our fortress?
“We could play chess.”
“We could play checkers.”
“Or maybe charades.”
“Or maybe hide-and-seek.”
“There’s so much to do.”
“What’s that noise?”
It sounds like breathing.
“Hold your breath.”
We stand there, silent as rocks.
The breathing continues. It’s the sound of the universe expanding and deflating, the lull of salty surf breaking down steel.
It’s come to us. It’s here. We thought we locked it out, but we only locked it in.
“Quick, to the safe room,” Eli whispers.
We scramble inside. We heave the door shut. We lock, and double-lock, and triple-lock.
Sarah strikes a match and lights a candle. She cups the flame, and the flickering light illuminates the hollowed panes of her face, the terror in her eyes. Eli crawls beside her.
We strain to hear the rasping breath and padding footsteps. We kneel side by side. We wait.
The shudder of its movement draws closer. Its footsteps are the sound of a rusty iron door clanking shut. Its scales rattle like metal coat hangers in an earthquake. Its presence is the smell of rotting meat and morning nosebleeds and childhood humiliations.
Its claws rap impatiently against the door.
Inside our cage of concrete and steel, each noise echoes like a canyon.
“Now what,” Eli whispers.
“You know what to do?” Sarah whispers back, and we feel the tremble of her question mark.
“Are you ready?”
We take out the first aid kit and the Swiss Army Knife, our breaths shallow in the monster’s stench. Eli swabs the knife’s longest blade with rubbing alcohol. Sarah begins unbuttoning her shirt, lingering long at each button. We close our eyes and whisper a silent entreaty to the gods of love, but they remain aloof as ever.
Sarah lies back on the cold concrete floor. Eli rolls up her sweater into a pillow and cradles her head against it.
We are afraid.
Eli rests his ear against Sarah’s chest and listens for her heartbeat. Sarah feels his hot breath tickling her bare skin and tries to steady her pulse for his sake.
Outside, the creature toys with the second lock.
We look into each other’s eyes as Eli makes the first incision, the knife steady in his right hand, tracing the contours of Sarah’s pulsating heart with his left. Blood bubbles up like a spring and darkens the lines of his palms.
We can hear the creature salivating; its breath quickens.
“You’re so brave,” Eli says, as he makes the second incision, cutting carefully around the edges of her heart.
“You’re the brave one,” Sarah says, her eyes bright.
“Why do you say that?” Eli says.
“I could never face this world without you.” In the hollow of her throat is a pool of blood.
Sarah is whispering. Eli hears regret in the rattles and rustles of her fading voice. “If only we could have . . . we wished we would have . . . we knew we might have . . . we thought we would . . .”
“What? What did you say?”
Sarah’s whispers grow quicker and fainter, faster and slicker. Eli leans closer. “If only we could have?”
“The boat beside the lake your grandmother’s locket the falling rain the broken mirror the missing page my favorite book . . .” Sarah’s voice fades. Eli leans closer, but there’s no sound but the damp breathing outside, a beating heart (Sarah’s), a beating heart (Eli’s).
“I love you,” Eli says.
Sarah doesn’t answer.
Eli holds Sarah’s heart in the palm of his hand. The rasping claws sound like nails on a blackboard. Panicked, the creature pleads for just a taste.
Eli tilts his head back, allowing the warm blood to drain from the palm of his hand, down his throat, into his chest. He slurps the gobs of pulsing viscera from cupped palms. He doesn’t stop to chew.
Closing his eyes, he cradles her body, drawing in the last waves of her fading warmth.
Outside, the creature slinks away, thwarted and hungry, leaving nothing but claw marks and the odor of disappointment.
Eli waits with Sarah as she becomes cold, then skeletal. Eli does the same; he has nothing left.
In the silence, Eli contemplates other universes, alternate ways to defeat the beast. They could have built a trap. They could have changed their faces, and their names. They could have hired a mystic. They could have fled to Panama. If only they’d been more innovative.
But as their parents learned, there’s no escape. The beast will destroy everything eventually, if only through the dread of it.
Finally, he understands.
He unfastens the first lock, then the second, then the third. He swings open the door and gulps in the fresh air. He descends the rope ladder and stumbles into the dark, waiting night.
© 2012 Desirina Boskovich.