“What do you think, buddy? Does our new apartment pass inspection?” she asked, watching the cat padding around the room.
Damien didn’t acknowledge her questions. He was engrossed in the second phase of his post-move reconnaissance, sniffing everything he’d already sniffed the previous night. Stalking the room’s perimeter, he made no sound but for the occasional low growl when he smelled something strange.
Probably a previous tenant’s pet, Samantha thought.
“It’s an old house, buddy,” she said, in a tone she hoped would ease his palpable tension. “A lot of people have lived here since the Victorian era. It must be sensory overload for your little sniffer, huh?”
He looked to her, and she saw the staggering intelligence behind those green eyes. She could’ve sworn he understood every word she said.
Grace, beauty, intelligence—it was no wonder why feline deification spanned centuries, continents, and cultures. China had its shíshī guardian lions. Japanese folklore was filled with mischievous kaibyō. Cats held every mythical rank from pulling Freya’s chariot to embodying anthropomorphic Egyptian gods. Barbara—Samantha’s Muslim friend from high school—had once told her that angels wouldn’t enter a home with a dog, but that cats were revered in Islam for their cleanliness.
Samantha smiled at Damien. “You’re not some deity or guardian spirit or anything like that, are you?”
He gave her a look that said all cats considered themselves gods.
“Of course,” she scoffed at herself. “Dumb question.”
Damien growled again, flicking his tail and twitching his nose at a few white paint chips that’d bubbled and peeled off the windowsill. He shot across the floor to scrutinize a matte patch of raw wood where the varnish had cracked and broken away. A few of the narrow planks bowed upwards, evidence of water damage from an indecipherable time ago.
“I know. It’s not exactly what I was hoping for, but the price is right.”
The two-story house had been converted into four apartments. Theirs was the lower left quadrant, when facing the house from the street. It was just enough space for a twenty-three-year-old and her furry companion and was within walking distance of the restaurant where she worked. The other three tenants were older male business types who were unlikely to disturb her reading on days off. She could deal with the earthy smell and groans of expanding wood if it meant avoiding the loud, drunken partying common to other apartments in the city.
Inspection complete, Damien trotted back across the room and leapt onto Samantha’s lap. He revved his engine to report that the residence was secure. For such a small guy, he had a powerful motor.
“Jeez, you didn’t come with a muffler, did you?” Samantha stroked his sleek back.
Damien arched his spine beneath her black nails and turned in a circle on her lap before sitting facing her.
“Typical,” she said, shaking her head at him. “You only want to cuddle when I need to leave for work.”
Her gaze drifted across the modest living space to the unpacked boxes filled with their sparse belongings—her books, his toys. Most of her closet was strewn over the few pieces of furniture she owned.
“I’ll try to finish unpacking tonight, but I need to go. That jerk put me on another double shift. Take care of the house today while I’m gone. Okay, buddy?” Samantha scratched his fluffy neck with both hands and smooshed his face.
Damien’s purr kicked into overdrive. It wasn’t his usual breathy purr-rest, purr-rest. The trill was deep and steady, threatening. It sounded more like his growl.
Samantha’s hands froze but remained loosely cupping the cat’s face as his slim tail bristled. A ridge of raised hair fanned down his spine. His pupils dilated—vitreous black swallowing the bright green—but his eyes weren’t on her.
They glared over her shoulder.
She squinted, thinking she saw movement in those black mirrors, but she couldn’t decipher it. The tall shadow seemed to be moving—no, writhing, while simultaneously standing still. A rank stench hit her olfactory receptors and Samantha covered her nose and mouth before she retched.
Damien released a protracted hiss, baring his maw of enamel-coated needles.
Samantha whipped her head to the right, still covering her nose as she looked over her shoulder. Her heartbeat hammered against her ribs, her pits damp. The fine hairs on her arms stood erect. Her dark eyes searched for any possible source of the unnerving reflection.
All she saw was the blank wall.
“What the hell was that?” She looked back to the cat. “You scared me.”
Damien gave a short, indignant trill, offended that she dared question his instinct. His pupils had contracted to their customary slits, fangs sheathed within his fuzzy jowls.
“I guess moving has us both on edge. It was probably just a shadow from a passing car. The smell must’ve come from the house’s crawl space. All those bare patches let the smell come right up. There’s gotta be all kinds of vermin living under there. Good thing I have a vicious guard cat to protect me.”
Samantha gave Damien’s head several quick smooches before standing and setting him on the blanket that covered the couch. She grabbed her bag and strode for the door, saying, “I’ll see you tonight, buddy. Be a good boy.”
Damien watched her leave with an imperial expression that said he was always a good boy.
Locking the apartment door behind her, Samantha pushed open the house’s main door and hurried down the stone steps to the sun-drenched sidewalk. The May morning greeted her with a heavy dose of humid heat that produced instant sweat on the back of her neck and made her dyed-black curls stick to her skin. The restaurant’s kitchen would be near unbearable.
Three boys were passing on their way to school. She guessed they were probably ten or eleven. The boy in the lead stopped, and his two companions followed suit.
“You live here?” the lead boy asked, eyeing her and then the house.
He wore a black T-shirt with a clown on it—Captain Something—from a horror movie the title of which escaped her. The boy’s greasy, light brown hair made weak waves around his pale face.
“Yes, why?” she asked.
“Don’t you know this place is haunted?” Clown Shirt asked.
She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Most of the buildings in this town have a reputation for being haunted. It’s a ploy to get more tourism.”
“No, this place is really haunted. Haven’t you heard of the Worm Man?”
“Like the Mothman? You could’ve come up with something more original if you wanted to scare me.”
“I didn’t come up with it. My granddad told me about it. He said the original owners were a married couple who rented out rooms, but that the husband couldn’t keep away from the single babes who stayed here. He’d use his master key and sneak into their rooms at night to have his way with them.” Clown Shirt wiggled his eyebrows for effect.
“Do you even know what that phrase means?” Samantha asked. She sure as hell wasn’t going to explain it to him.
“It’s true, though,” said one of the other boys. His curly black hair was cut short. His smooth, walnut skin was yet to show signs of puberty acne. “The guy got away with it for decades.”
Samantha couldn’t imagine why Clown Shirt’s grandfather had told him such a story or why she bothered listening.
“When the wife found out, she went postal,” the third boy added. His fine red hair and freckles, combined with his Slipknot T-shirt, made him look like a heavy metal Opie Taylor.
“She pushed him down the stairs to break his legs, then stabbed him a bajillion times with a kitchen knife,” said Metal Opie. The other two boys made Psycho sound effects and stabbing gestures to illustrate. “The old bat buried his half-dead ass under the house and let the creepy-crawlies slowly eat him to death.”
“Good for her,” Samantha replied, unfazed.
“Except he didn’t die,” Clown Shirt said, taking over narration again. “They say he’s so evil, he sucks life from all the animals living under there—that worms ate his skin and now squirm all over his rotting muscles to help him stand.”
A twinge of unease seized her stomach. Had she heard this story somewhere? It was starting to feel familiar, but she couldn’t place it in her memory. Looking back to the house, she saw Damien watching her from the front window.
“I heard giant worms fused with what’s left of his face and hang off his skull like that octopus-headed captain in the second Pirates movie,” Curly said.
“He’s still alive down there,” Metal Opie added, without missing a beat, “waiting to satisfy his eternal need, waiting for a hot babe like you.”
The compatriots made spooky sound effects in stereo, followed by uncontainable laughter.
Samantha almost applauded their performance. For a second, they’d nearly had her. She didn’t have the heart to point out the major flaws in the Worm Man’s story, such as: 1) the unlikelihood that anything would be left of a hundred and something-year-old corpse except bones; 2) that worms were not strong nor intelligent enough to work in synchronization; and 3) that Clown Shirt’s granddad was full of horse excrement.
“Well, it’s too bad for the Worm Man, then,” Samantha said, “because I’m into girls.”
The boys stared at her with slack jaws. Before she could say anything more, her phone vibrated. She looked at the lock screen and saw a text from her boss, then saw the time.
Samantha sprinted down the street. The Worm Man story fled her mind as she focused on the opening duties she’d have to perform in turbo mode if she wanted to save her hide. She didn’t hear when Clown Shirt yelled after her.
“Don’t let the Worm Man get you!”
Stomping up the shadowy front steps, Samantha let herself into the house and resisted slamming the door behind her. The restaurant’s kitchen closed at 9 p.m., but the dishwasher had bailed at eight without telling anyone, and the two line cooks went out to smoke and never came back, leaving Samantha to close alone. The situation was getting too common for her liking—a little hazing from her male colleagues who wanted to ensure she knew there’d be no special treatment simply because she had two x chromosomes. She couldn’t tell the boss, or they’d accuse her of being too moody, hormonal, or some other offensive stereotype to misdirect blame. They’d done it before.
Damien meowed in greeting as she entered. He performed his customary prancing dance with his tail at attention while twisting his head back and forth, keeping his green eyes on her.
“Hey, buddy. I’m glad to see you too.” She kicked off her work shoes, lest she track fryer grease through the apartment.
The cat galloped across the room and disappeared behind a few boxes, returning with some kind of striped ribbon in his mouth.
“Aww, did you find a toy?” Samantha crooned, crouching to extend her hand. “Bring it to me and I’ll play with you before I shower.”
Damien ran to her and deposited the trophy on her palm.
Samantha gasped. She dropped the slithering ribbon and shot to standing, shuffling backwards until she hit the wall.
The cat pounced on the snake, pinning it with both paws. Damien bit the serpent’s middle and threw his head side-to-side, making it flail.
“Take it outside!” Samantha shrieked. She ran down the narrow hallway and yanked open the back door. “Damien! Outside!”
The cat dashed down the hallway—his eyes shining with predatory glee—and shot out the doorway. He launched off the top step of the weathered deck and landed on the concrete driveway, triggering the motion sensor light. Samantha looked away, not wanting to witness what happened next and not caring, provided that the cat left the carcass outside.
Taking a step towards her bedroom, her right foot squished something slippery and slid a few inches before she threw her arms out to grasp the doorframe for support. Samantha bent her knee, twisting her leg so she could look at the bottom of her sock. She instantly wished she hadn’t. Seeping through the dirty cotton to violate the sole of her foot was the glistening slime that’d once been a plump snail.
Samantha released a wordless vocalization of revulsion, contorting in a full-body cringe as she clenched her eyes shut and used a single fingertip to peel off the sock before tossing it into the night.
“Gross, gross, gross, gross, gross!” she moaned, then froze.
Wait a second. Snakes, snails…
She gasped in indignation. “Oh, those little devils.”
The boys. They must’ve broken into her apartment after school and left their gifts for her to find. It wouldn’t have been hard. Half the aged windows didn’t lock—the latches having rusted and broken—and the back door was nothing but a knob with a lock. No deadbolt. An easy thing to pick. Back in college, she would use her library card to pick a similar lock to her dorm room. Modern boys were undoubtedly more sophisticated in their methods.
Your little trick didn’t work, gentlemen, she thought, narrowing her eyes at their memory. I’m not falling for it. Worm Man, indeed!
Damien strutted back inside, looked up at her, and licked his jowls.
Samantha stood at the front window the following morning, stroking Damien in her arms with the focus of a woman on a mission. She watched all the neighborhood kids make their book-laden treks to the school down the street. When she saw a familiar trio approaching, she kissed the cat’s head and left him inside while she exited to greet them.
Clown Shirt saw her first and exclaimed, “Look who survived the night!”
“So it was you,” Samantha said.
“It was us, what?” Clown Shirt asked. He wore a different shirt today, one with a yellow smiley face that bled from a bullet hole between its eyes, but that didn’t matter to Samantha. From now on, he would always just be Clown Shirt to her.
“You three pranked me, didn’t you? You broke into my house while I was at work and left me your little gifts.”
“What you talkin’ about, lady?” Curly asked.
“There was a snake in my apartment last night, and a giant snail. If I find any puppy dog tails, I’m calling PETA.”
“Is she crazy?” Metal Opie asked the others, keeping his eyes on her.
“Don’t play innocent with me, Lords of the Flies. I know what boys are like. You think you’re funny, don’t you?”
“Whatever you think we did, it wasn’t us,” Clown Shirt said.
“We weren’t near your stupid apartment. We all got picked up right after school and went to our friend’s birthday party. His mom’ll tell you we were there. Call her,” Metal Opie said.
Samantha searched their faces for lies and saw none.
Was it just a fluke? The house is old. It wouldn’t be the first apartment I’ve had with the occasional critter issue.
“She strokin’ out or something?” Curly asked. “Should we call 9-1-1?”
“I’m fine. Maybe I jumped to conclusions. Sorry for accusing you.”
“Can we go? We’re gonna be late for school.” Clown Shirt said, pointing towards the long walk ahead of them.
Samantha lifted her left arm in a gesture of dismissal. As the boys passed, she heard Metal Opie whisper, “Girls are weird.”
Mortified by her overreaction, Samantha spent Friday’s shift on sullen autopilot. She didn’t even grumble to herself when the dishwasher and two line cooks bailed on her again. She just checked off the closing sheet and ensured the restaurant’s back door locked behind her.
“Hey, buddy,” she said to Damien, upon entering the apartment. “Sorry I couldn’t come visit you on break. The lunch rush ran right into dinner. It felt like everyone in town got off work early.”
The house was silent but for Damien’s urgent pleas for attention.
Good. No one will disturb me if I go to bed early. She turned for the hallway and halted, her eyes widening.
The floor was smeared with brown paste. Even the walls were stained with the stuff, like someone had dragged their messy fingers down the clean white paint. Samantha’s head whipped to Damien.
“Did those boys do this? Did they lie to me?”
The cat released a loud cry as though to say it wasn’t his fault.
“Sleeping on the job, huh? I thought you were some powerful guardian kitty. How could you let them prank me again?”
Damien grunted low and trotted off to his cat tree to keep sentry.
“Please only be mud, please only be mud,” she chanted, forcing herself to crouch low enough to sniff the sludge.
Samantha exhaled in relief. “It’s mud.”
Damien licked his paw and washed his pristine face.
“It’s a pity you don’t have opposable thumbs. You could help me clean.” She pulled the black kitchen gloves up her forearms and set to scrubbing.
Her work shirt was damp with perspiration by the time she finished, her back sore and face oily. Stretching herself to standing, she lumbered down the hallway to the bathroom and massaged oil cleanser over her skin. It was pricey—imported from Japan—but it was the only thing that’d remove her makeup. Samantha turned on the hot water tap and leaned over just in time to get an eyeful of worms writhing and wriggling in the drain.
She cried out, slapped the water tap off, and shuffled backwards until she tripped and landed on her tailbone inside the tub.
Damien charged into the room with an urgent trill that said I’ll handle this and flew onto the countertop. He clawed at the basin, his pupils as wide as the druggies’ she worked with. He growled and clawed, growled and clawed.
“Don’t—” she choked, unsure of what she was telling the cat not to do. Not to save her from the Worm Man? She barked a laugh at her own ridiculousness. It was a bad prank from lying little boys, nothing more.
Samantha wriggled out of the tub and inched closer to peek into the sink. All she saw was an empty drain.
“What the…” She looked to the cat. “Did I imagine it?”
Damien made a few more padding motions on the porcelain and wiggled his little butt before charging out of the room again in full zoomy mode.
“Crackhead,” she grumbled after him. “I’m cutting back your catnip allowance.”
Though she knew in her bones that it was a prank, Samantha found sleep an elusive companion that night. Whenever she was on the verge of slumber, she would hear a strange noise, like the creak of shifting floorboards, a pop of ice crashing from the ice maker into the holding tray, or a moan that could’ve only been a gust of wind.
It’s all in your head, she reminded herself, turning onto her left side in bed. Her eyes drifted open against her will and fixed on the window shade. Her breath caught in her lungs, and she dived for the bedside lamp.
The sudden light eradicated the shadow she’d seen against her bedroom window, that backlit hulking figure too large for a mere boy. Maybe all three had huddled together to savor her unease. Sheer adrenaline forced her to the window, and Samantha peeked outside, expecting to see them giggling in the bushes. The driveway’s motion sensor light was still on. That light only came on when creatures Damien’s size or larger passed beneath its cyclops eye.
She couldn’t see a single animal outside.
Samantha growled in frustration and fell back into bed, pressing a pillow over her head. Didn’t boys have anything better to do on a Friday night than torment a stranger?
Saturday passed in a blur. It was her third double shift in a row and the busiest day of the week, as the restaurant offered brunch. The town’s upper crust drove down from their mansions to sip iced coffee and munch on eggs Benedict, enjoying the shade before returning across the street to the park, where the farmer’s market bustled with commerce.
The brunch crowd segued to the binge-drinking crowd, and Saturday nights were always bets-off. There was no telling who’d puke mid-karaoke or get thrown out for trying to grope the waitstaff, who’d decide to break up with her boyfriend before a buzzed audience or announce to her best friend that she’d slept with her husband. Samantha preferred drama to remain between the pages of her favorite books. Sometimes, Saturdays felt like she was trapped in a bad reality TV show, though reality was growing more surreal by the day.
Samantha’s legs trembled as she entered the apartment, her gaze shooting in every direction, searching for signs of break-ins or vandalism. Part of her wished the boys would leave evidence. A keychain, a pressed penny from a school field trip to the zoo, anything that proved recent events were the work of three teenage humans.
She found nothing. No critters, no mud. No shadows.
“Maybe they got bored and found someone better to torment.” She hoped so.
Samantha stripped, dropping articles of clothing as she padded towards the shower. Her feet felt like chicken breasts flattened by a tenderizer. A hot shower and a good sleep, that’s what she needed.
Standing beneath the flow, she let the steam and spray calm her nerves and relax her body. She forced herself to breathe deeply, knowing she’d fall fast asleep once her warmed body cooled. Inhale…exhale…inhale—Samantha gagged.
There was that rank smell again, like rotting meat. She’d smelled it once at another restaurant, where no one had abided by the FIFO method. There was no meat in her house.
Something was wrong with the water. It felt too thick as it splattered against her hair. Samantha opened her eyes and saw multiple brown streams shooting towards her face. She groaned in disgust and backed against the shower wall.
The mud dissipated, the water running clear again.
You’re okay, she told herself, as mud slid down her cheekbones. It’s just the city. They must’ve messed with the water supply today. You’ve seen brown water before. Calm down. It’s not life or death. It’s just gross.
Samantha scrubbed her body until she looked like a lobster. Slipping into a T-shirt and shorts, she crawled into bed but couldn’t sleep. The faintest noise sent her heart rate rocketing. She clutched Damien to her chest and repeated the mantras that failed to calm her.
It’s just the boys.
It’s only the city.
It’s all in your head.
Sunday, her precious day off, was a bust.
Whenever she tried to read, the words squirmed and slithered across the pages. The air smelled like rotten meat every time the AC kicked on. The slightest shifting of wood made her jump. Damien growling at every corner didn’t help.
She’d spent the night watching the windows, determined to catch the boys in the act. All she’d succeeded in accomplishing was losing more sleep. She hadn’t spied a single boy.
“Something’s not right,” Samantha said to Damien. “Kids get bored easily. Even if they pranked me, they’d have moved on by now.”
Damien continued methodically cleaning himself, seemingly oblivious to her distress.
Unease got the better of her. Samantha grabbed her phone and called the landlady.
“Hi, Mrs. Kilkenny. This is Samantha. Apartment three? I just had a couple questions about the house. Is this a good time?”
“Sure, dear. What would you like to know?” the older woman asked through the line.
“How long have you owned this property?” she asked, tapping a black nail against her thigh.
“Why, it’s been in my family for a few generations now.”
“Have there ever been any…unusual occurrences?”
The woman paused a fraction of a second too long. That pause confirmed Samantha’s fears. Her stomach felt like an implosion.
She knows there’s something wrong with the house. She knows, and she let me sign the lease anyway.
“Unusual occurrences?” the woman asked, feigning ignorance. “Like what?”
“I…I’ve been having some plumbing issues.” It was all she could think to say to escape the conversation. If this woman knew of her undead ancestor and his wiles, she wasn’t going to admit it. It also meant she wasn’t going to help.
“Oh, that. Well, old pipes, you know. I’ll have my man stop by this week.”
“Sure,” Samantha whispered.
Hanging up with a shaking hand, she looked to Damien. “I can’t sleep here. Should I try calling Laura and see if she’ll let us stay a few nights?”
Damien gave her a disparaging look.
“You’re right. I forgot she’s allergic to cats. That little escapade didn’t end well, either. I could try smuggling you into a hotel.”
The cat placed a gentle paw on her forearm, as though reassuring her that he was there, that it’d be okay.
She smiled through her fear. “Thanks, buddy. At least I have you looking out for me.”
The Monday morning sunlight felt like acid in the backs of her throbbing ocular cavities. Her unwashed hair coiled in matted tendrils around her shoulders, skin cold despite the heat. Puddles of smeared makeup accented the dark shadows beneath her eyes. Her nail polish was chipped from hours scratching at the floorboards, looking for chinks to plug. She’d left Damien inside, but beside her on the top step was the weighty meat cleaver that went everywhere with her now—at least, everywhere around the house.
She saw the boys’ slack jaws from yards away, the o’s of their mouths growing larger as they approached and stopped before her.
“Hey, lady, you okay? You don’t look too good.” Curly said.
“No, I’m not okay,” she said, rising on perfidious legs. “I need you to be honest with me. Was—Is there really a Worm Man? Did you really hear that story from your grandfather? It sounds like something you probably saw on that Stranger Stuff show.”
“Stranger Things,” Curly corrected her, enunciating things.
“Is weird stuff still happening to you?” Clown Shirt asked, his young brow creased with concern.
“Like you don’t know.”
“We don’t. We’ve been camping all weekend.”
No, you couldn’t have been. You’re the only reasonable explanation. It must be you.
“What happened now?” Clown Shirt asked.
She scrutinized their faces. Their former teasing expressions had morphed to concern. Metal Opie’s wide blue eyes looked downright terrified as she described the recent disturbances.
“Holy crap! That stuff actually happened?” Clown Shirt asked.
“We really didn’t do it,” Curly said. “Sounds like my granddad was right. You’d better move. You don’t want some dead guy’s worms.”
She didn’t want a live guy’s worm near her, let alone the worms of some perpetually rotting urban legend with a thing for younger women. Sleep deprivation compounded her paranoia and eroded her rationality. Recent events almost had her believing in the Worm Man.
Something was messing with her.
Samantha looked to Clown Shirt. “Is there anything else you can tell me about that story?”
“I told you everything Granddad told me. Are you gonna be okay? Can you get away somewhere? You already look half dead,” he said, ever the charmer.
I can’t get away. I signed a contract, and I can’t afford to live anywhere else. I have to stay here if it kills me.
In a rare gesture of goodwill, Samantha’s boss sent her home early Monday night with the order to get some sleep. She figured he was tired of her nicking herself from working while delirious and wanted to avoid writing an accident report. Whatever the reason, she gratefully staggered through the dark streets back to the house.
She took a bath, too fatigued to care whether or not the brown stuff she bathed in was mud. She just relaxed in the hot water and let it massage her tense muscles, knotted from days of work, stress, and anxiety. Her adrenaline was tapped out. She couldn’t stay awake another night. Sleep deprivation had her seeing writhing shadows everywhere.
Samantha shuffled across the narrow corridor and fell into bed without bothering to dry her hair or find clothes. She pulled the fuzzy blanket around her body, which only seemed to insulate her fears.
It’s just a myth. It’s not real. You’re okay. You’re going to be okay. You just need rest.
Damien leapt onto the bed and curled into a circle of floof atop her thighs. His deep, reassuring purrs lulled her to sleep.
Samantha dreamed of impossible extant musculature straining over sickening yellow bones to churn the soil beneath her bed, of dermis composed entirely of worms, and of heavy, fetid breaths too cold for a living mammal. She dreamed of an emaciated arm reaching towards her body in jerky movements with nothing but a few moldering planks between them.
The warped floor shifted like a puzzle box, allowing the undead creature through.
Damien’s yowl wrenched her conscious and Samantha’s eyes shot open. She lunged forward into a sitting position and fumbled for the bedside lamp. Light flooded the little room.
Samantha’s voice fled too deep within her to scream. Her mind glitched, refusing to accept what her wide eyes beheld. All she could do was stare.
Damien looked up at her with a mouthful of worms, the foul remains of what lay slaughtered on the floor reflected in his gleaming eyes.
Copyright © 2023 Aia Järvinen