Himself took the digital thermometer from her mouth and frowned at the number. “You need more fluids.”
“I can suggest a few,” she creaked. It was a feeble attempt at their usual banter, but if she didn’t make some kind of attempt at sounding normal, he was going to have her overheated ass hauled into the emergency room and they absolutely could not afford that.
“Not in your condition, hot stuff,” he said, pressing his hand against her forehead.
“You know you can’t actually tell my temp by touching me,” she said. “It’s too subjective. And you literally just took my temp. Which you haven’t told me.”
“You’re at 103.8, smartass, and if you get past 104 I’m taking you to the hospital whether you like it or not.”
She tried and failed to leverage herself into a sitting position. “You will do no such damn fool thing,” she croaked. The six pillows he had assembled on their creaky, too-narrow bed had squished themselves into vague amoebas entirely unlike their usual marshmallow shapes. When she shifted her weight, her joints flared with pain and her muscles strained and groaned inside her heated skin.
He stood over her, imperious in his caring. High fevers meant hospitals and doctors with magic spells inside $300 bottles. He would do The Right Thing no matter what, but when she got better, she would be the one to deal with the bill collectors and nastygrams on the answering machine.
Still, she struggled to sit up. It was hard to fight when she was flat on her back. “We can’t afford it,” she insisted. “Even after the insurance.”
“Too bad, we’ll apply for help or whatever, but your temp is not getting better,” he insisted.
“I’ll be fine.” Truth was, she felt like a sixteen-wheeler loaded with anvils had run over her twice, but she’d stand outside in the goddamn snowstorm naked to cool off if it would keep him from taking her to what she called the Land of the Thousand-Dollar Water Bottle. That came from a brief hospitalization the year before when she just couldn’t kick a bout of pneumonia, and there was a $1,000 line item in the bill for “hydration,” which turned out to be the refillable water bottle they left by her bed.
“Stay down and rest, and I’ll come check on you later, you stubborn woman,” he insisted.
Temporarily stumped for a rejoinder, she stuck out her tongue at him.
“That’s my girl,” he said, and finally left.
She didn’t call after him, “Don’t call me girl!” He called her “girl” only to annoy her into telling him not to, and she probably should have lobbed more snark at him but she was hurting too much.
She punched the pillowamoebas back into some semblance of support, little flares of aching heat bursting inside her arms, so she could lie down with her upper body elevated. The inside surface of her lungs crawled with fire ants, and she uttered a few more hoarse coughs as another bout of the shivers struck her.
Oh, so we’re entering the frosty zone, she thought as she scrabbled more blankets on top of her. Her whole body shuddered, simultaneously hot as hell and sure she’d never be warm at her center again. She drew her legs up against her chest and shivered under the blankets, two of which were fraying badly at the seams and now she spied a hole in the sheet.
Wonderful. Add it to the list of Things We Can’t Afford to Replace.
The illness had been dragging on for days now, and pretty soon she was going to run out of sick time at the factory. Himself was making noises like he was going to stay home from work tomorrow to take care of her, and it was hard to be frustrated with someone so sweet even when he was so goddamn frustrating. One of them needed to be bringing in some money, or next month’s rent would only be paid with good looks and charm.
The heat suffused her limbs, pulling her deeper into the covers, and finally she began to drift. She never fully slept, or so it seemed, as the shadows grew longer and the snowfall outside her window darkened with the vanishing sun. She remained in this half-conscious floating state between full sleep and staring trance-like at the cabbage-rose wallpaper, burning up from inside her skin. The weak bedside lamp gave feeble light against the dusk coming quickly behind the steady, silent snowfall outside.
Faintly she recognized the bleating inanity of the television downstairs, the padding sound of Himself going into the kitchen for a cup of coffee even though it was past five o’clock and he wasn’t supposed to have caffeine this late and how was she going to stop him, eh?
She drifted, and so did the fever, and when she came back to herself she wasn’t shivering anymore—her body ached as though she’d been pummeled in the ring for nine rounds and was somehow still standing.
Now sweat slicked her body, a corona of heat enveloping her head, and she flung off the comforting blankets that were now constraining and heavy, weighing her down. She scrabbled across the bedside table and grabbed the remote for the fan that stood in the corner by the bedroom door--with no ceiling fan, a remote control for the stupid fan was one of the best damn things he ever bought in his wanderings through the hardware store—and aimed it.
The bedroom door stood open.
I could have sworn he closed it, she thought, and tried to turn on the fan.
Nothing. The fan was still and silent.
“Fuck,” she muttered, and dropped the stupid thing back on the table. She briefly considered getting up, but if she fell taking four steps to turn on the goddamn fan, Himself would have her off to the Land of the Thousand-Dollar Water Bottle before dinner.
A fresh wave of sweat rolled over her body, coating the back of her neck and beneath her breasts even with the thin cotton nightgown she’d been wearing for two days.
She tried to convince her body to sit up, but all the coughing had formed thick bands of soreness around her abdomen beneath her lungs, like she’d been doing the world’s most enthusiastic sit-ups for about three weeks straight. If I’m gonna hurt this much I should at least get washboard abs out of the deal, she thought.
She grabbed the remote again and aimed it at the fan, still standing mute by the open door.
There was someone standing in the doorway.
Shadowed darkness filled the hall behind it, with the snowstorm blanketing the windows and dimming the thin light from her bedside table. She blinked, her too-dry eyes watering all of a sudden and squinted. “Babe?”
The form did not respond.
She clicked the remote.
A thin, fish-pale hand snaked out of the doorway shadow and pressed the fan’s ON button.
A pathetic squawk escaped her throat and her heart hammered behind her sternum. “Who’s there?” would have been the logical thing to say, because that was not Himself’s hand she saw vanishing back into the darkness. But inarticulate squealing was apparently all her voice would give.
As if to underscore the point, she heard the familiar squeak of Himself’s easy chair downstairs as he settled back in the living room with his illicit coffee. They’d often joked that this old house was like an echo chamber, you could hear everything everywhere whether you wanted to or not. They’d had to be super careful when the kids still lived at home and learned to misbehave very quietly and by the way what the fuck was that thing in the hall outside her door? She could see its shape beyond the vague boundary of light cast from the small lamp beside her bed.
She kept her eyes trained on it, as though it couldn’t move if she didn’t look away. She reached into the second drawer in the bedside table, hand skating over an ancient bottle of perfume and a few stray plastic gumballs with cheap knee-highs rolled inside and a round tub of some useless face cream and—there. Flashlight.
She brought it up and hit the button, suddenly sure as she did so that it would provoke the thing in the hall into attacking, that if she turned on the light, it would be the last thing she saw.
The flashlight beam stabbed past the fan to the open doorway and illuminated the empty hall beyond.
No one was there.
No fish-pale hand, no mysterious slumped shape. No crawlies and beasties. Just her imagination and the fever.
She let her body relax back on the pillows again, sighing and cradling her aching, sore abdomen. The fan trundled back and forth, the cool sweeps of air falling across her body in waves.
Sweep, sweep. The cool air of the fan against her roiling heat and hypersensitive skin. Her head was pounding, rods of pain up through the back of her neck and stabbing twin spikes into the base of her skull. She tried to massage her own neck and only succeeded in making her hands sore.
Then the fan died.
She opened her eyes and glanced at the bedside table. Her little Walmart alarm clock was blank, and the foot-high bedside lamp that barely offered enough glow to read a magazine was dark.
Downstairs she heard Himself getting up out of his chair and muttering something, probably the kinds of swear words he thought he shouldn’t say in front of her despite the decades they’d been married. Soon he would snag a flashlight from the dining room junk drawer and maybe a couple of votive candles that he would call romantic and then he’d come up to see about her and…flashlight.
She still had the flashlight, lying on the bed just beyond her fingertips. She grabbed it and turned it on, aimed straight upward at the ceiling.
The thing perched above her, death-pale with green eyes and a mouth that stretched too wide for any sane mind to comprehend, lined with rows of shark’s teeth. It hissed from the ceiling, directly over her head, and her wavering flashlight beam caught only a vague impression of its body and legs or tentacles or some appendages spread across the ceiling.
She screamed, and in her mind the sound was enormous, shrieking, ripping through her poor abused throat in a flash of ice-hot pain. The actual sound she emitted was more like a pathetic squawk.
She heard Himself’s feet scrambling up the stairs, and fresh panic struck her—he’d see It, It would hurt him, he must stay away.
“No,” she tried to call out. “No, go away, don’t come.”
It grinned above her, a neon-green saliva forming between its sharklike teeth.
She cast the flashlight about, searching for anything that might help. The cabbage roses on the wallpaper were dancing in concentric swirls like that redheaded painter’s sky, the one with all the blue and yellow, her daughter had had a print of that painting she’d bought at the museum field trip, and she was so proud… only they were twirling now, forming patterns and faces screaming out of the walls and then breaking up before her eyes.
“No!” she managed to cry out, and he was coming anyway, calling out her name in something akin to actual panic. Somehow, she knew the power wasn’t out because of ice on the lines or the goddamn snowstorm or this drafty old house, it was It, it was the thing above her bed, and It was after her, and It was after Him.
It dropped itself over her, and she had the vague sense of tentacles surrounding her body and snaking into the bedding that enveloped her. She felt It shaking her shoulders, Its tentacles like hands, and Its grinning teeth drooled acid green on her thin nightgown. Its weight pressed her down into the mattress, and she felt the pressure on her chest, stifling her breath.
Somewhere she heard Himself, he was still there somehow, and she fought the thing, struggling against its grip even as she shrank away from those teeth, the sharp triangles with serrated edges that came closer and closer to her neck. She bashed at It over and over with the flashlight, but It sneered with each hit even as it recoiled.
It seemed she struggled forever, or maybe it was only seconds, and when she felt It lifting her body from the bed, she wrenched herself away from it with all the strength left in her body. She dropped to the bed again, and for a moment the room was still.
“Get out,” she tried to yell, but it came out a halfling whisper. “Get out, leave us alone.”
She coughed harshly, the fire ants dancing inside her lungs and ripping fresh wounds along the inside of her throat. Here, motherfucker, have some germs.
Somewhere she could hear Himself talking downstairs again, maybe on the phone, but no—there were other voices with him now. He was coming back up, and someone was following him.
Footsteps. Many footsteps, coming up to her room, as flashes of red and blue light alternated through the window. It was rhythmic, the lights going on and off and switching from red to blue to red, and in between the flashes she could see It crouched on top of the bookcase by the window. It grinned Its sharp smile at her and waved a tentacle, dripping with green ichor.
“Stay away!” she cried as Himself came back into the bedroom, and then she screamed again, because his dear homely face was gone, covered in the green and grinning through it with a too-wide mouth and sharp teeth.
He was not alone. Two dancing dark sprites came with him, cloaked in shadows with rubber gloves on their hands, coming at her through the darkness.
She struck at them with the flashlight, but it was wrenched from her hands. She flailed as they descended against her, dragging her under the blankets, deep into the still cocoon of her sickbed as the darkness swallowed her down.
Elizabeth Donald is a writer fond of things that go chomp in the night. Her horror, science fiction and fantasy books include the Blackfire and Nocturne urban fantasy series. She is the recipient of the Mimi Zanger Literary Award and three Darrell Awards, founder of the Literary Underworld small-press cooperative, is a freelance journalist, and is pursuing two masters degrees at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She lives with her family in a haunted house in Illinois. In her spare time, she has no spare time.