You Must Flee Again :
Sometimes I think the Fates must have a rather ironical sense of humor. Take the case of the stranger who broke into my home last fall.
It was my housekeeper’s night off poor woman; rain had started at dusk, and she had gone out into the downpour with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. For some time after her departure, I sat alone by the fire, feeling very snug as I listened to the Swish and spatter of the raindrops, driven splashing against the windows by a gale of almost malignant fury. Anyone abroad in that deluge must have been thoroughly miserable. But not necessarily — terrified.
Terrified is exactly what the little man was. My door — unlocked — gave clicking sounds as he frantically tried its knob, rousing me from my reverie. He staggered in and shut the door with careful soundlessness; turning, he faced me as I twisted in my chair to see who had entered. He jumped, but his expression did not change; it remained one of blind, maddened fear.
As I looked him over, I was reminded of a frightened mouse. He was a small, thin fellow — and his tired-looking face was so expressive of helpless misery and terror that it was half tragic and half absurd. He wore no hat, and his hair was sleek with rain; grey locks were clinging damply to his forehead. He trembled — and the night was not that cold. For a long moment, neither of us spoke; he was gasping, apparently from running. Finally he panted, “I beg your pardon — I — may — may I stay here a while?”
Then he staggered to a chair and collapsed into it. I couldn’t hold back a scowl; his soaked clothes must be ruining the upholstery. Why hadn’t he worn a raincoat. The scowl went unnoticed; his mind seemed to be elsewhere.
He looked up at me timidly. “I know this must seem strange,” he gasped. “Dreadful imposition. But I — I got caught in the storm you see.”
I returned his gaze coldly. “In that case, what’s wrong with my very spacious front porch? Better be honest with me; what are you up to? Police after you?”
He sat looking at me piteously, his gasps gradually quieting.
I stood up. “Well, go ahead. What’s your story?”
He gulped miserably. “Oh, I can explain. It’s not the police. It’s all perfectly — I mean, I—” His gaze fell to the floor, and he regarded the rug for a while in silence. Then he quivered, as though from a sudden chill, and looked sharply at the windows. “Would — would you be good enough to draw the shades?”
I scowled; the request seemed both odd and presumptuous. Nevertheless, I humored him, and pulled down the shades; he relaxed noticeably. With folded arms, I stared down at him severely. “Go ahead,” I repeated.
He licked his lips and brushed the damp hair back from his forehead; then he told me his story:
“All this will seem incredible, I suppose, but its God’s truth, sir. I wouldn’t be here otherwise. If I were just a — a prowler, say, would I have come in the front door? Well — I’m an antique repair man in one of the big galleries in town. I live by myself in a little apartment; a couple of miles from here, it must be. I’ve never been in any kind of trouble before this; I’m a quiet man, living a routine sort of life — at least, I was.
“Well, I’d been living here uneventfully for almost twenty years. Then something happened that upset my whole existence. Mentally as well as physically.
“One night coming home from work I was pretty deep in thought about one thing or another; so wrapped up in myself that I didn’t notice when the bus got to my stop. When I realized what had happened, I was a good mile out of my way. I got off at the next stop. It was a bracing sort of night, so I decided to walk back, rather than take a bus.
“The neighborhood was unfamiliar — I’d never been out that way before. I strolled along rather slowly, giving my surroundings a leisurely examination. As I walked, dusk fell, and the streetlights came on. The semi-darkness gave the houses around me a somewhat — eerie look. You see, it was an old section of town, and I suppose most of the residents had moved to more convenient parts of the city. Anyhow, many of the houses were empty, even boarded up. Some of them suggested the ‘haunted houses’ I remember fearing as a child.
“I wasn’t really uneasy, you understand — I’m not a particularly imaginative man; but the atmosphere was there. So it came as something of a shock when, in the long rows of dingy abandoned houses, I saw a thin line of light. It peeped through a crack in the boards over a tightly nailed-up window, in a building that seemed dilapidated beyond repair.
“I stopped in front of that window — it gave on the street — and I gazed at it with a good deal of puzzlement. The other windows were boarded so tight I couldn’t tell whether there was light in any of the other rooms or not; but this particular window had this small crack in the boards over it, and light gleamed through. As I watched, the crack blinked at me. That is, it went dark for an instant, then lit up again. It occurred to me that such a phenomenon might be caused by someone’s walking in front of the window, inside. And it seemed odd.
“Now, as I say, I’m not an imaginative man — and not usually inquisitive, either. Still, that light and its blinking — it did it again — set me to thinking the matter over. And it irritated me, because I couldn’t quite understand it. What would anyone be doing in a boarded-up old house, and at that hour? Well, I felt I had to know the answer. I looked up and down the street — rather guiltily, I suppose. Then, seeing no one in sight, I entered the house’s yard.
“I grabbed the window-ledge with my fingertips and gave a little jump. I couldn’t hold myself up there, but as I bobbed by the crack, I caught a glimpse of part of the room within. As I hit the ground again, I was trembling.
“It wasn’t the sort of room you’d expect to find in an abandoned house. Just with that fleeting glimpse, I’d received a distinct impression of immaculate cleanness; not whiteness, but a gleaming, polished black. I’d never seen a room with shining black walls before, and somehow — it frightened me. It seemed unnatural, perverse. Moreover, I’d glimpsed part of a human figure, and it was garbed as though for a costume ball. Scarlet with black figurings. Something in the design disturbed me, but I hadn’t been able to get a good look at it; just a swift impression of part of a red-and-black robed back, and shining black walls.
“I stood there in the deepening twilight, shivering, and thinking the matter over. No explanation came to me, but I told myself there could be no justification for the sudden fright that glimpse had given me. There must be some ordinary, common-sense explanation. But in any case, I felt I had to know.”
At this point the little man looked around him rather furtively, and gazed with particular intentness at the shaded windows. Then his glance fell to the floor again, and he resumed his narration. I stood leaning against the arm of my chair, and noncommittally regarded my fingernails.
“Well,” he went on, “there was a battered old orange-crate lying on the lawn — it was a pretty shabby neighborhood, you see — and I stood it on end under the window and climbed up for a good long look. It was hard to see much through the crack, and I had to fill in with my imagination the half-forms and half-gestures I saw. To this day I can’t be sure just what it was I observed.
“There seemed to be only one person in the room, a man of rather unusual height, clothed — as I said — in a crimson robe, with enigmatic designs in black. When I looked this second time, the man was kneeling near the center of the room, and making very curious gestures which I coukl see only in part. A foot or so beyond the man, something I couldn’t see was giving off a weirdly multi-colored smoke which writhed and eddied like a concourse of rainbow-hued snakes. The man seemed to be mumbling to himself, a faint drone which suggested no words in any language I’d ever heard.
“The scene was so utterly bizarre, so unaccountable in terms of human life as I knew it, that I was fascinated, and stayed perched on the box — staring for dear life, and hoping I’d see something which would explain it all. I suppose I would have looked very suspicious to any passer-by, but none came, or at least none disturbed me.
“How long I remained there staring I have no idea. It must have been hours. Very little seemed to happen, at least very little that was even remotely intelligible. The gestures and faint mumbling went on a long while, then ceased, and the colored smoke eddied and whirled for an instant, as though a draft had entered the room. At about this point I became aware that the red-robed man was not alone in the room as I had thought; there was another man, similarly robed but with black the predominating color, and red that of the designs. There was something strange, almost inhuman, in the posture and movements of this new figure.
“The actions of the two from then on were beyond all relevance to anything I know. They spoke front time to time, but always softly, and the syllables never resolved into any intelligible words. Moreover, the more I watched the less sure I was of the number — and sex — of the people in the room. The fragmentary glimpses I had were most confusing and — disconcerting.
“Finally I noticed that the mumblings of the strange persons were now accompanied by a semi-musical droning which rose and fell as though with the accents of speech; and the single person I now saw stood in profile, silent, in an attitude of respectful listening. A shadow fell upon him. My scalp prickled with a sense of approaching menace; I shifted my weight uneasily on my aching legs. The box creaked, sharply. “The man in the room turned his head and stared straight into my eyes.”
Here, again, the stranger paused. Once more he glanced around, and he moved restlessly in the chair.
“Go on!” I urged, rather severely.
The little man sighed, and continued:
“There was no question but that he saw me — or, rather, saw my eyes at the slit. His face writhed in a most extraordinary expression — a mingling of utter panic and the most intense and shocking malignancy. He moved, swiftly — and so did I.
“I dropped to the ground, terrified, and ran. I was hardly out of the yard when, glancing back in fright, I saw the whole slab of boards over the window melting outward. It was held by the man in the black-figured scarlet robe, who instantly saw me and shouted something hoarse and unintelligible. The light in the room went out as he spoke.
“All the way to the apartment-house I ran, and I ran up the stairs to my floor and down the hall to my apartment. Once in the room, panting and covered with sweat, I locked the door and remained standing for a long time, quivering in fear. Finally, I relaxed a bit and got up enough courage to go to bed; but I slept little that night. Or since.
“For it didn’t end there. Rather, that glimpse — I of them, and they of me — was only the beginning. The days were getting shorter as autumn came on; when it began to be dusk by the time I got home, I noticed that I would be followed from the bus-stop to my home. Whoever followed did so at a distance, and in shadow, but after the first couple of nights the creature’s purpose was plain enough. I was being hunted. Someone wanted to get me alone somewhere in the dark, where nobody could see us, and — well, what he would do I preferred not to think.
“I was especially careful, of course, never to go beyond my stop on the bus-line; and it occurred to me before long to take a different route. At first the prowler, or prowlers, missed me on the new route; but after two nights of freedom, I saw someone dodge into the shadows as I turned to look.
“It was a vague, unnameable menace, but it was terrifying enough. My mind was never easy, and I dreaded the end of each working day. My work suffered, and I was spoken to rather harshly more than once, but how could I explain? I was convinced, you see, that whatever it was I had seen, its perpetrators were resolved that my half-knowledge should never be imparted, and they were out to destroy me. Moreover, I had no idea who — or what — they were, nor whether their normal residence was in that old house, nor whether they dwelt together or separately. I wouldn’t be likely to recognize them again, dressed in ordinary clothes. I could know them only by their actions.
“Finally, they struck. One night I tried another new route, through a neighborhood with which I wasn’t overly familiar. To my alarm, I found that I had to go through a long, dead-black alley-way to get to my street. Well, I feared going around the old way more than I feared the alley, so I went ahead.
“What a horrible few moments that was! I went through slowly, feeling my way, breathing cautiously, and tensed for I didn’t know what. But I got to do other end of the alley, and let out my breath in a great sigh of relief – when something past which I had walked struck at me from behind.
“I was walking as the blow fell, and had just quickened my pace, which must be the reason why the blow only grazed the back of my head. I reeled, momentarily blinded with shock and pain. Then, quite automatically and without conscious thought save pure terror, I recovered my balance and ran madly, spurred by anguish and panic.
“I have no memory of getting back to my room; my mind simply blacked out. All I remember is that as I turned to enter the door of the building, I glimpsed my assailant, not pursuing me at all, but standing – rather oddly hunched, I thought – at the mouth of the alley, motionless. Once safely in my room, I examined the back of my head with the aid of two mirrors, and found that my hair was lightly splashed with blood at the roots, from a series of parallel scratches. These were only superficial, though, and had already stopped bleeding. Still, I looked at those scratches for a long time. My assailant must have used a most extraordinary sort of weapon.
“That was last night. This morning I was afraid to leave my room; but the bright sun finally dispelled the worst of my fears, and I went to work. When it came time to go home, I was dismayed to find the sky so overcast that the evening was completely dark. After a good deal of troubled thought, I decided to take my usual route home, since the walk from the bus-stop was shorter than the walks necessary on the other routes. But I fidgeted a good deal all during the bus-ride.
“As I stepped off the bus, the rain started; and I thought I saw something hiding behind the phone-pole a few yards from me. As the bus drove off, my fear was realized: a dark shape stepped from behind the pole, one arm upraised.
“I turned and ran blindly, in the first direction that suggested itself. A figure stepped into my path – friend or foe I never found out, for I dodged it with panicky swiftness and ran in the other direction, ran with hysterical speed, the rain driving hard into my face. My hat flew off and in confusion I slowed for an instant, only to dash on faster than before, when I heard close behind me, the quick tread of pursuing feet.
“I twisted and turned, up one street and down another, splashing wildly through puddles, elbowing occasional pedestrians, dodging cars, completely out of my mind with fear. I ran for blocks and blocks, all the pent-up terror of weeks let loose in a blind burst of energy. It was like a nightmare. I had no idea where I was going or why, except to escape my nameless pursuer.
“The thought of finding a policeman came to me, abruptly, but I was in an out of the way part of the residential district and passed few people, including no policemen. Finally, as I ran, out of my mental turmoil came the idea of taking refuge in a house – any house – and I ran to this one.”
He stopped and looked at me beseechingly. “He – or they – may be lurking outside. I don’t dare to leave. You must keep me here, at least until morning! Don’t you see my position? Surely you’ll help me!”
He looked very pathetic as he pleaded. But-
“I’m sorry,” I said evenly, “but I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong person. It’s hardly strange, of course. There are quite a few of us.”
I flexed my hands, unsheathing my claws.
He had time for just one short scream.