When Jordan opened his eyes, it was still crouching there near the corner.
He had been doing his best impression of a corpse—had been since he woke ten or so minutes ago, half-slung off the bed with one bare leg reaching the floor and the other folded under his crumpled quilt, placid sunlight spilling through the edges of his blinds and an odd trilling ringing throughout his room. That was what had woken him: the trilling. He’d opened his sore eyes to see a massive bird, huddled and preening, resting on an unseen perch some three feet off his bedroom floor.
Given that it hadn’t noticed him thus far, he dared to lift his head, then pulled himself up to a slouch. It was the size of a dog, standing on two legs with wicked feet. Cream-colored plumage on its throat and chest met seal-brown back-feathers, and the undersides of its wings carried a hawk’s brown bands. It purred and then chirped at something he couldn’t hear, opened a black beak full of pointed teeth and strutted forward. Its gait said chicken, but the orange-gold eyes said dragon.
Something snapped in Jordan, and the disbelief gave way to panic. He did the first thing that came to mind: he called Melt.
“Mm,” Melt’s sleep-drugged voice grunted, answering on the first ring.
“What the fuck did you give me last night?”
Melt laughed. “That worn? Go back to sleep, man.”
“Richard, I’m not fucking around,” he said.
When Melt answered again, he sounded awake. Worried.
He hung up the phone and fought a wave of nausea. The animal in his bedroom strutted between his legs as if Jordan himself were the ghost.
Jordan remembered that he was holding his phone and snapped a photo. If he and Melt had taken something laced and he was hallucinating still—well, at least the world would make sense again in a picture. But there, in grainy rendering on his tiny, shitty screen was the lizard-bird.
Somehow, this did not make him feel better.
He fully expected the thing to have ambled off or dematerialized in front of him by the time his friend, Richard Melton, had arrived, but no. He showed Melt into his bedroom, and they both stared at it as it swallowed torn-away bits of carnage. He could not see the victim but could hear: the wet pull of strips of flesh and organs in the jaws of the bird and the sloppy sounds as its jaws snapped into body. The dinosaur was standing half within his trashcan—not half-inside it, but rather the trashcan and the bird occupied partially the same space, as in a video game glitch.
“Well,” Melt said. “Yeah, that’s a dinosaur.”
“What the hell, man,” Jordan said, sliding to the floor and resting his face in his hands.
After a while, the dinosaur fled, startled or pursued by an invisible predator, and it darted through his apartment wall and out of sight.
As it turned out, the anomaly in Jordan’s apartment ran deeper than his one-time encounter with the dinosaur, but it was harmless—interesting, even—in the beginning. He slapped at a mosquito that wasn’t there. A broad-leafed plant shifted languidly from somewhere within his wall, obeying the will of a breeze that existed only for it.
He and Melt sat on his floor, drinking. A cigarette rested in Jordan’s fingers and in the plumes of smoke, a great and dark-shelled thing dived and glided. A skeletal underside and a hard, black segmented shell, never meant to be seen in the pale, domestic daylight of his bedroom.
“In physics, we learned that time is like a fabric. Like a blanket,” Melt said, forming a flat plane with his hands.
“You were paying attention in physics?”
“And that it can kind of bend,” he pressed on.
He held up the edge of his shirt like a shelf, and then dropped his phone onto it. The fabric dipped into an inverse tent, his phone at the center.
“And that’s how gravity works. Or something.”
“Gravity is…your phone, here?”
“Oh, fuck off,” Melt said, grinning. “Okay, I didn’t pay that much attention. Point is, if space and time is like a fabric, maybe you can poke a hole in it. I think time is bleeding here.”
“What could poke a hole then?” Jordan said.
The ridged black shell of the animal swung around, armored tail pumping, as it rose on pelagic currents.
“I don’t know, man,” Melt said. “That’s not my point.”
“I get your point. I’m also not so sure that that’s how time works.”
Jordan lifted a hand and curled his fingers lazily in the air as if to touch the underside of the animal as it glided past once again. It clipped through his fingers, unaware. He was a ghost hundreds of millions of years in the future.
Bleeding time. The creature wheeled and circled under his gaze.
As Jordan lay in the cold glow of his phone screen, following the pull of his insomniac tendencies but still bleary, dull—something walked through his doorway.
Something unusually tall.
And his mind registered the peripheral shape as a person, but before he could turn to it, it darted forward with a hunched gait toward his wardrobe.
He swung up and flipped on his lamp, veins pumping ice. There was nothing in his room more malevolent than a school of three prehistoric fish, which meandered slowly near the ceiling, armored faces serene.
A rabbit materialized in thin air—the accomplice in some magician’s act, somewhere out in the world, Jordan supposed with a smirk—and loped under his bed, ears clipping through the mattress.
Nothing in here can see me, he reminded himself.
Nothing in here can hurt me.
Over the next several days, he arrived at an uneasy peace with the state of his apartment.
A collared black housecat appeared in the corner of his bedroom, pacing it, sniffing the corners, and then flopping down on its side, tail thumping playfully, before leaping up and darting out into the hallway and turning a corner into oblivion. His bed became the center of a tree trunk, replete with insects; a chipmunk raced a careening, spiralling path up from mattress to ceiling, pursued by a would-be suitor.
He caught the death-black silent stare of a sooty owl as he sat working at his desk, only to startle so badly he knocked over his glass of water as it flew at him, talons forward to snatch up a mouse nestled in his lungs and fly off.
Still, he was adjusting.
Then one night as he rested in bed, doing nothing in particular, watching a cloud of phantom fireflies, he heard a distinctly human sound—faint, but as he listened clearly, he became sure of it: a small, quick, incoherent babble, and quiet murmurs that conveyed a desperate fear. He localized it to his wardrobe.
He stood up. He had to know. Nothing in here can hurt me.
His wardrobe. Some part of him wondered—was it by chance that it was confined in there? His wardrobe shouldn’t exist for this thing, this phantom. He stood in front of it.
The murmur was unequivocally coming from within.
Breathing hard, he steadied himself. Jordan flung open the doors.
He saw a human shape huddled in the dark of the wardrobe, the glint of its eyes. A pale face surfaced from the shadows, eyes wide with terror, staring through him.
His own face.
Jordan had begun to take inventory of his room’s guests. Some things, he had found, seemed more likely to appear more than once. The feathered harbinger of this whole situation had never made a reappearance. He’d seen the black cat several times, however. Rabbits and insects of the modern variety seemed more frequent lately as well but, of course, he was never sure if they were the same exact specimens.
And his own ghost in the wardrobe had returned. Not the next night, but a week later. The appearances had increased in frequency since. What it all meant, if anything, he wasn’t sure. He’d have liked to talk it over with Melt, but his friend had long since stopped coming over. Melt said the place made him uneasy. He refused to talk much about it anymore, changing the topic or ignoring Jordan’s texts whenever he brought it up.
Since Jordan’s attention was preoccupied with little else lately, this meant they hadn’t spoken much at all, really, in some time.
It was never easy to look his own fearful face in the eyes, pale and entrenched in shadow in the back of the wardrobe, but he had made it something of a ritual—he had to do it, had to confront himself whenever it reappeared. At first, he wasn’t sure why he did this but gradually, Jordan came to understand that he was looking for clues.
But when it appeared, it was always the same: the same mumblings, the same terrified upward stare. Even the same—as he could come to learn through careful and repeated observation—subtle movements. The twitch of a finger and gentle rocking to the left. It was as though he was beholding a single moment, seared into time.
It was himself; Jordan was sure. And, since he had no memory of this moment, it had simply yet to occur. Since the past bled into his apartment, he reasoned the future could too.
An elk appeared in the middle of his room, lifting its massive horned head; Jordan could see every hair on its great, shaggy throat. It swung its head rightward and then, after a pause, turned its body to follow, lumbering off in that same direction. Simultaneously, a massive pale silver fish of pointed, innumerable teeth and tiny black eyes pushed itself across the stag’s path—parallel travelers who would only ever meet before his eyes alone.
His room had been busier recently.
Phantom birdsong warbled above his head. Evergreen needles scattered over his desk, falling through it. A rabbit screamed from halfway within his wall, torn-open flank weeping a trail of blood that pooled near his floor and left it unblemished.
Nightly, his doppelgänger murmured from the wardrobe, rocking in fear in the dark.
Jordan hadn’t left his apartment in a span of time that he couldn’t accurately estimate because time had lost all meaning to him. Melt had called him once or twice, but he didn’t care, and now his phone was dead and he was blessed with silence—not true silence, but the burble of streams and the calls of animals. A symphony of crickets played on his desk. The collared cat flopped down beside him and darted playfully into the hall.
A trilobite swam into his jaw as he sat on the floor, facing his open wardrobe. It was devoid of ghosts for the time being; the doppelgänger had vanished. But he had become obsessed with looking at it, empty or not. He was thinking nearly always of what it was that he was going to see because he had witnessed only a fragment of the moment that was going to frighten him so terribly.
A termite whittled its way into his knee. Striking yellow songbirds shared the ceiling with iridescent fish. A forest fire ripped through his bedroom, shading everything in blinding red. The songbirds wheeled, and the fish swam through the flickering orange tongues. Old trees creaked in the wind. A fox screamed.
Jordan felt, rather than saw—or perhaps there was some sound he was unconsciously aware of—something at his back. He stood and turned around.
In the hall outside of his bedroom was something wholly unrecognizable.
It looked like a man, or the shadow of a man, tall and still and facing him. In the shifting dark of its face, he could make out features if he stared long enough. Darker shadows of eyes, nose, mouth, he realized, but something was horribly, horribly wrong with that face.
This was neither person nor animal.
He was frightened, but he forced himself to hold his ground. He had largely become desensitized to unsettling sights and movements, hadn’t he?
But those dark eyes bent down toward him, and he knew that this was different.
He knew—it could see him.
His blood: pure adrenaline. What did he have here in front of him?
What could poke a hole?
He stumbled backward, turned and ran—forward, but nowhere real to go, and he darted into the first place that he could reach and closed the door, as though the thin wood of a cheap wardrobe could ward off something that had broken through a much more difficult fabric.
Jordan shuddered and distantly heard small sounds of terror, uttered by his own throat as he stared up into the dark. He realized he didn’t have to wonder what would come next because he already knew, and so with shuddering breaths, he waited.
AVERY KIT MALONE is a friendly corpse mumbling faintly in the dark. His short fiction appears or is forthcoming in Aphotic Realm, Pseudopod, Dim Shores Presents, Grimoire, and other venues. Call to him across the void, if you'd like: @dead_scholar
Artwork by the Novel Noctule team.