The howl that woke Jules lingered in the cold stillness and empty shadows of his room like the fading echoes of the horns of the Apocalypse. Blinking, trying to hold the dream of emptiness as it fled through the haze of sleep, Jules sat up in the darkness. His mind remained caught on the source of the sound that woke him, focused now on the barks beating in through his closed window. It was the neighbour’s dog again. Sharp, red digits on his alarm clock told him it was hours after midnight and hours more till the sun rose. Three nights into this, he knew better than to hope the noise would stop anytime soon.
Pushing himself out of the overheated bed, Jules jabbed a clumsy hand toward his bedside lamp. A faint click and light spilled over the nearest corner of the room. Through squinting eyes, he saw the blank screen of his phone, the tiny white particles floating in the half-empty glass of water next to the bed, the broken spine of the book he’d fallen asleep to, and the uneven, moon-cast silhouette of the creature standing outside his window.
Jules carried the water to the window where he watched the night from his small, isolated place in the world. The moon looked like a beacon between strips of shredded clouds, and he could almost smell the glass as an aura of cool air. Below, the grey shape of the dog slipped through pools of deeper darkness as it padded along the length of the chain-link fence, throwing its head back every few steps to let out another forlorn wail.
“How can a being speak so much without saying anything at all?” asked the Thing outside his window, its voice coming to Jules as a muffled hum.
The barks were sharp between the howls, their edges tapering off into thin desperation. Joules had never owned a dog, had never spent much time with them, but he recognized that universal pain. “I understand him,” he told the Thing.
Days earlier, before Jules had considered that an animal could feel that depth of emotion, he’d seen the Thing out there, near the old oak tree, its stilt legs wobbling on uneven joints while it cooed at the dog. At first, Jules had thought nothing of it. That wasn’t unusual behaviour for the Thing as it had long shown a particular and strong fascination with the neighbour’s pets, and pets in general. It was the dog which was acting strange. Thinking for a single, hopeful moment that something else had finally noticed the Thing, Jules found himself standing under skeletal branches, hands tucked under his arms to keep them out of the biting wind, to see first contact play out. But the dog was not interested in the Thing at all. Instead, it paced its yard looking for something else. A squirrel, maybe, or one of the neighbourhood cats. A bone? Did dogs actually bury bones? In frozen ground? Then the dog curled up next to the water bowls and Jules knew what it wanted to find. Its sister had left hours earlier in the cab of the their owner’s pickup truck.
As the sun dropped behind the tallest of the surrounding buildings and the far edge of the sky took on a rosy tint, the dog began to let out anxious yips. The Thing began to question Jules, who retreated to his room. When the pickup returned with only one occupant, the yips turned to whimpers. When the owner carried out a single bowl of food, Jules closed his blinds.
An hour later, as Jules tried to eat a chewy, overcooked microwaved lasagna, the howling began.
“Self-medication,” said the Thing, an appendage wobbling back and forth like a giant, under-cooked sausage.
Jules yawned as he set the empty bottle down. It was a mistake to sit near his balcony window, because of course, even though the dog had finally fallen asleep, the Thing was still out there. As Jules looked at it, his eyes slid past the lumpy body, the lack of symmetry, to focus on the relatively more organized clump of features near its centre. That’s where most of its words seemed to come from when it spoke, and what Jules had decided was its face. “Someone has to do it,” he said.
The Thing turned mute after that. It was maddening, the way it became a statue, displaying nothing he could recognize as body language, while it contemplated some new bit of information, tried to put that puzzle piece into whatever picture of the world it wanted Jules to create for it. But Jules had places to be, and with a couple drinks inside him for added warmth, he was ready to face the outside world.
He walked to work through dirty valleys of pavement, face numbed to the icy wind slicing through his jacket. The Thing kept pace with him, skittering along on spindly legs. They passed The One Under the Awning, its pink flesh spilling like an over-risen loaf of bread from the narrow space it had wedged itself into. It shouted as Jules came into view, a piercing caterwaul of invective aimed only at him. Usually, Jules would have planned a path to avoid it, but he didn’t have the time for that today, not after the nearly sleepless night had him running late.
Near his office, clamped to the side of an old bank building like a gargoyle, was the Face. Today it had affected a smile so wide it looked like it could open its mouth and fold inside-out. Giant eyelids batted, but it said nothing, only peering down at Jules as he dodged around a taxi cab making an illegal U-turn.
At lunch, Jules slipped out early and ate alone, finding a spot in an unused stairwell that didn’t smell too strongly of urine. He sat and poked at his lifeless, store-made sushi and the Thing, adept now at getting inside the building without his help, watched him, fidgeting every time Jules took a bite. It complained about most of what he ate, often reeling from the smells while commenting on the chemical compounds in decaying organic matter. But not today.
Two years living with the Thing and the other creatures. Two years spent with their questions, the Thing itself acting as a running Greek chorus for his meagre life. Two years living stranded, caught outside the invisible currents of the real world. Two years of that, and he’d never seen the Thing be so silent for so long.
“You know,” said Jules while he chewed. “I think it’s been more than a month since my last conversation with another person.” The words came out flat, dispassionate. That should have surprised him, should have made him feel something. It did not.
“I believe you are correct,” said the Thing. It looked down on Jules, propping its limbs against the narrow walls at the joints so it could hang above him. Such behaviour no longer disturbed Jules, who didn’t bother to crane his neck while he replied.
“Should probably do something about that,” he said, the words as good as a shrug.
“Do you feel a need to socialize?” the Thing asked, something like doubt in its throbbing voice.
Jules leaned back, felt the smooth ridges of the painted blocks at his back. “I think everyone does.”
The Thing let a few of its limbs dangle, set them swaying to some unknowable internal rhythm, a gesture Jules recognized as a sign of a mood that was almost playful. “I am open to your conversation,” it said.
Finishing his food, Jules stood. “I need caffeine.” He could feel it pressing at his eyes, the ache from lack of sleep. Another yawn. He left through the fire exit with the Thing scraping along on its knees to keep at eye level. It waited outside the store while he bought a Diet Coke, shrank away from the hissing release of gas as he twisted the bottle open. It said nothing else while Jules walked back to work, head down to avoid the glare of the sun filtered through grey clouds.
That night, Jules lied in bed exhausted but unable to sleep. An hour spent counting the lines in his ceiling left him at the edge of frustration, with the feeling that something had to give, somewhere. Without turning the lights on, he pulled open the curtains and found the Thing folded into the small space of his balcony, pressing up to the sliding glass door. The light of his fridge drew the Thing’s attention, causing it to twitch mechanically as it turned toward him.
Jules sat in the dark with his drink and, without conscious thought or desire, began to speak.
“I’ve always believed that January is not only the wrong month to start the new year,” he said, “but the worst possible choice available. First impressions are everything, after all, so think about how every new year opens up with eight weeks of frozen black skies overhead and greasy brown slush underfoot. There’s no winning with that, no matter how you’re trying to spin it. Imagine all the alternatives. What if the first day of the year was also the first day of summer, if you could spend what is usually a dreadful and forced holiday where everything is closed and the entire world feels hungover, frolicking at the beach. Or make it sometime in March to match up with the beginning of spring, with blossoming perennials and the sweet melody of robins as they flit like sparks between budding branches.”
“Or, best of all, sometime in autumn, when the leaves turn. Because that’s a new year I could wake up to, the one with the fiery kaleidoscope of reds and oranges and yellows scattered by the trees like their own impressionist take on a sunset. Imagine that. Imagine each year beginning with nature’s beautiful suicide. There’s a season I understand.”
He finished his drink. It was a lie, of course. Just a rehearsed speech, something like a conversation, but not really. What you’re supposed to say because you don’t actually say what you mean. You don’t say that the real reason you hate January is because it’s what you understand the most, that endless weeks trapped in a steel-grey box would be time served if that wasn’t already the rest of his life. You don’t say those things, and he didn’t have anyone to say them to, anyway.
The Thing kept watching him, giving no indication that it had even heard him. Which bothered Jules, who by now depended on its presence, on the idea that it was real, that he wasn’t sitting alone in the middle of the night talking to himself. He waited for a response while fog rolled in again and his eyelids became heavy.
Outside, the neighbour’s dog began to howl, and Jules stumbled back to bed where he slept and dreamt of benign emptiness.
On the first night free of the dog’s howling, the Thing disappeared. It did this from time to time, going away without warning. Sooner or later it would come back with as little notice, and usually Jules welcomed the reprieve. But that night, with the chill bleeding in through the walls, Jules felt a familiar malaise settling his apartment like a low pressure system. He tried to fill the gap with distractions, reading, a new video game, anything that might keep his thoughts focused outward. It didn’t work. Every few minutes his mind flashed him images of the yard below, the dull colours of the frozen, matted grass, the pair of empty bowls next to the battered shed. The lone animal now somehow more conspicuous in its silence. Jules knew that what you didn’t say often mattered the most.
Unable to sleep, Jules stood at the window, another half-empty bottle like a lead weight in his hand. A clear winter sky full of twinkling blue specks of ice fed on his mood, drawing him in. He imagined himself as an exoplanet, a body without orbit, hurtling through the exponentially expanding distances of his life, on a collision course with nothing.
He saw the lights of other lives all around him. The ones still bound to each other, drawn together through the comfortable warmth of gravity. When had he fallen away from that? Which of the many asteroids hurtled at him had finally knocked him loose, battered him into this infinite, frictionless spiral? He could hardly remember anymore.
A shape, a blacker blotch flitting across the sky. A bat maybe, or another of the Thing’s weird cousins. Some of them made themselves scarce enough that he didn’t have regular names for them. Others were so small he only saw them when they crawled directly into his field of vision, or so big he only caught glimpses of them as great and haphazard Escher masses shambling along the faraway horizon, unwilling or unable to get closer to the city.
Signs of movement below, the neighbour’s dog padding to the fence. Was it looking at something? Could it see him? Jules craned his neck, trying to follow the dog’s gaze, and saw the Face swaying in the naked branches of the old oak tree. It leered back, a full-body action coming from its impossibly wide eyes and gaping, crooked mouth.
A thought that had been creeping up on Jules for months, circling like a predator moving on the weak, pounced. Every day he saw something unique, delusion or not–and maybe he was really crazy. But how could he know? Because every day he lived with these things, interacted with them, and he had not once shared that with another human being. Not even by choice–that was just what he’d become, over time. A person gripped by an involuntary solipsism, living only with the malformed demons of his subconscious.
Jules closed the blinds, shutting the lid on his box. He lied back down and listened to the shivering scrape of the branches until he fell asleep.
It was the first time something had followed him home when Jules realized how bad it was getting. His reaction was not fear, not concern, it was something closer to mild confusion. He’d been in the final stages of his flight from real life, concentrating on the organized retreat, the listless consolidation of what remained. Work, food, sleep, work. Not seeking comfort in the routine, but in passivity when faced with the inertia of life. When he lied to himself, which was often, he could say that was a sign of acceptance, which is a better word than apathy.
And maybe it was that circular route through the same sets, weeks of rote marching in an unbroken line, that let them slip in. Theirs was a quiet invasion. Nothing jumped out at him, or darted through his peripheral vision to knock over clattering cans. His life didn’t take on the added dimensions of a cheap horror movie. They crept up on him almost through osmosis, through subtler sensations. The slowly increasing volume of his mind’s background chatter. Always something there, something extra, a shape or a shadow in the scenes he’d spent enough time staring at that he retained their dimensions like photographic negatives. Gradually, and then all at once, they came into focus. An errant smudge seen on the way to work resolved into dozens of lidded eyes pushing up against the corner of the shop where he bought his gum, the small, nondescipt mammal encountered on the way back became a scrunched, glossy mass propelling itself up and down his street on hundreds of tiny, mismatched legs.
And he did not care.
In initial conversation, after the Thing’s weirdly polite introduction, Jules had pointed that out. “Of all the people in the world, you’ve managed to find the least interested and the least interesting.”
At first he couldn’t tell if the joke was on him or on them, or whether he’d gone completely crazy. If he had, he decided, it wasn’t making any difference.
So it wasn’t long before they began to reintegrate, blending again into the scenery. Jules gave them names, put labels on them, filed them away. When weather permitted, he sat out on the balcony with the Thing nearby, clinging to the metal railing, and endured its questions to help pass the time.
On his better days, Jules let the Thing act as a surrogate for his own atrophied curiosity. It first drew his attention to the neighbour’s dogs, the pair of them living together in the nearly empty yard. Jules didn’t know much about them, or their owner, other than that they were quiet and he was on disability due to something work related. And that only on the strength of a rumour sweeping through the building like a fever at the time Jules moved in.
Some nights after work he’d get a report of the limited observations the Thing made on its own. A kid from down the street came around in the afternoon to take the dogs for a walk. Then the followup questions: “What do the dogs eat?” “What purpose do they serve?” “Do dogs need walks?” “Why?” And when the kid stopped coming, moved away, and the dogs became stuck in their yard: “Why don’t they walk themselves?” Didn’t seem to matter that the answers Jules had on offer were vague and entirely based on hearsay. The Thing was trying to learn, and Jules was the only resource it had.
Those pet quizzes were better than the personal questions. There’s a different quality to a “How are you?” or “What is wrong?” when its coming from the rumbling thorax of something that looks like how an overly imaginative child might draw what he thought lived under his bed. It invited the sort of outward-focused introspection that Jules, wanted no part of. Explanations meant reasons, meant justifications, meant potential damage to the facade.
Jules would wonder, when he still had the inclination to doubt this new, warped reality, if those questions meant his self-loathing ran deeper than he knew. Why else should the Thing want to know more about his problems than Jules himself did? Days spent staring blank-eyed at the wallpaper while the Thing stood by and used innocent inquiry to pick at his scabs. That’s what made him angry, made him snap. That’s what drove him to pull out the final message, a parting shot from his imploding social network, in the form of a note slipped under his door the day his last friend left town.
“If you want an explanation,” he said. “This is it.”
Its body flexing, tilting, as limbs probed the piece of paper, the Thing frustrated him further by telling Jules it could not read the words.
“You convinced yourself that you’re unique in feeling alone,” said Jules, reciting without having to look at the familiar handwriting. “That nobody else can understand you, connect with you. You repeated it so long it became self-fulfilling. And now you really are alone, the last priest and only disciple in a personal doomsday cult. You’re going to act like this is some sort of vindication for that ridiculous prophecy when it isn’t. You did it to yourself. No matter what you think, how you continue to justify your way around it, you’ve done this to yourself. You are to blame.”
The words splinted as his voice cracked and left the next moments ringing in sudden silence. Jules set the note back down, sat slumped on the edge of his bed. “That’s what I left behind.”
“Was your friend correct?” asked the Thing.
Jules said, “I don’t know.”
That was the first time the Thing disappeared.
Jules shut his eyes against lightning strikes as they lit his apartment like a slow-motion strobe light. Winter’s first major storm may have arrived late, but it seemed determined to make up for lost time by keeping him up all night with a continuous barrage of thunder. In the fading valleys between the piercing blasts, Jules heard the alternating howls and whimpers of the dog. He couldn’t remember it reacting like that to previous storms, but things were different now that it had to face this on its own.
With the Thing still missing, Jules wanted desperately to keep from succumbing to melancholy. A night like this, the air thick with energy, should have made him feel alive. But it didn’t. His eyes traced the angular after-images of the lightning with nothing more than reflexive interest in shape and colour. Was the Thing out there? Jules wondered if he hadn’t become more of a passive observer than a being that couldn’t even interact physically with the universe.
It couldn’t go on. With all the other uncertainties in his life, Jules knew that much for sure. Staying the same was as good as getting worse when he had nothing to reach for, to aspire to. “You did it to yourself.” In his deepest moments of self-pity, Jules still hadn’t manage to deny that.
Eventually, the storm began to smother itself. Jules barely saw the next flash of lightning through the blizzard now falling outside, heard the chasing thunder as a more distant bass rumble. No amount of passion could last forever.
The morning felt like waking up in a different world, one where things existed as softer, muted versions of themselves. Jules felt oddly light, and the first thing he did after getting out of bed was check on the dog. Through his window, he saw it prancing through the fresh snow, burying its face in the drifts that had formed against the crooked wall of the shed.
“Do you think it is happy now?” asked the Thing, its voice coming from inside the apartment.
Jules shrugged without looking away from the window. He’d long suspected that the Thing could come and go as it pleased, even get inside if it wanted, but that it chose not to for his sake.
“Why don’t you find out?” asked the Thing.
Jules said, “Because,” then stopped. He had the excuse there, one of his stock denials designed to maintain his arm’s-length relationship with the world. It should have been automatic, but in that moment he realized that he really did want to know, and the reasons not to find out didn’t seem as important.
Yet the anxiety still lurked. It took effort to build up to what he knew should have been simple. He put on his shoes, coat, and jacket, wrapped a scarf around his neck, and pulled his wool hat down over his ears. He took his time leaving the building, carefully followed the shallow rut of other people’s footsteps to the street. The Thing matched his ponderous speed, gliding along the surface of the snow like a water bug. Along the centre of the street for a few more paces, then Jules turned back in, forging his own path through the virgin snow of the neighbour’s driveway.
He made it all the way to the door before faltering. Now what? Was he really going to just knock and ask if he could take the guy’s dog for a walk? He wasn’t a total stranger–Jules passed the man’s house every time he left his building, they saw each other often enough to be nodding acquaintances. But still, there wasn’t a relationship there, not yet.
“What are you waiting for?” asked the Thing, and Jules shook his head.
He found a plastic snow shovel half-buried near the house’s side door. It seemed as strange a thing to do as asking to walk his dog, but maybe it would help prove his intentions. Jules got to work clearing a path from the door to the man’s pickup, and a wider path all the way to the street. It was easy work moving the unpacked powder, but he still built up a light sweat, and felt his heart racing when he returned to the front door to ring the bell.
“Hi,” he said when it opened. “I, uh, just wanted to let you know that I’ve shovelled your drive.” He leaned against the shovel and put on what he hoped was a friendly smile.
The man looked back at him with dark, sunken eyes, then passed him to the driveway. “Aren’t you a little old for that sort of thing?” he asked in a low voice. Jules smelled bitter coffee and something sour below it, motor oil, he thought.
“No,” said Jules. “No, it’s nothing like that. I don’t want money.” The man’s eyes narrowed as Jules hesitated, and he felt the panic rise, his palms sweaty against the warmed plastic of the shovel’s handle. The little voice in the back of his head was shouting at him. It was going wrong, like it always did. It was a stupid waste of time to even bother. He sucked in a cold breath, feeling it against his clenched teeth. “I just thought, maybe, you’d like some help. And that, you know, so could your dog. I saw him, and he seemed so excited today. Maybe I could take him for a walk.”
And it felt good to have just said it. Enough so that Jules could have lived through whatever humiliation came next. He kept his smile on, and waited for the door to shut in his face.
But it didn’t.
“Yeah,” said the man, eyes a little brighter. “He’d like that.”
A minute later, Jules had a leash in his hand and a folded plastic bag in his jacket pocket. The man stood at his back door and chuckled while Jules tried to wrestle the dog into being still enough that he could clip the leash on.
“Ash, sit,” ordered the man as Jules brushed snow from the seat of his pants and readied himself for another attempt. The dog sat instantly, its wagging tail brushing a away a semi-circle in the snow behind it. Jules bent quickly and attached the leash.
“Thanks,” he said, holding out a hand for Ash to sniff. “I’m Jules, by the way.”
“Joe,” said his neighbour.
They shook hands while Ash bounced in circles, pulling Jules toward the gate.
Half a block later, Jules felt the smile coming back. He’d done it, and it had gone better than he could have hoped. A phrase rose into the foreground, something straight out a Hallmark card, something that he’d always dismissed out of hand as a trite platitude. Life is a series of moments. He’d never even been able to make logical sense of it.
Just then, though, he thought maybe he saw some meaning in the idea. Right then, feeling Ash’s tug against the leash, the creation of a tether between them, between Jules and another real, living being. Right then, with the gentle brush of cold against his face, the sound of his feet crunching into the soft snow, the clean smell of it, the Thing standing at its full height, nearly brushing against the overhead power lines, the rows of brown-brick houses, it all coalesced into something that was a moment. A unique space in time for him to occupy. That he wanted to occupy. Just then, what had come before didn’t matter, and what came next was still in the distance. He was just there. And it felt good to be alive.
Jules had never told the Thing that his friend’s final message came with a post-script, a late addendum in the form of a rambling text message. Parts of it made no sense, and a lot of the rest was nothing more than repetitive apologies, which Jules hadn’t committed to memory. But he had kept some of it, one part, an idea. “You may have done this to yourself, but that doesn’t mean you have to fix it on your own.”
The moment became another. Jules fished a fallen branch out of the snow at the edge of a nearby park, whipped it through the air. Ash loped after it while the Thing hummed and shuffled its feet to avoid stepping on the dog. And that one was just as good. Jules threw the stick again. Ash barked, and the Thing leapt away, startled. Jules laughed.
That moment ended, and so did the next, and the next. Until the sun set and Jules was again alone in his apartment.
“How do you feel?” asked the Thing.
“Like maybe winter isn’t so bad after all,” said Jules.
(Note: Another story written at the last minute for a contest. Based on the topic of loneliness and two prompts: “It was never the same after that day” and “In a large series of unfortunate events, an immense amount of supernatural beings flood through a portal into our world. Luckily, they are invisible. Invisible to everyone but you.”)
Feedback of any sort is always welcome and appreciated.