“We think the northeast corner of Laundry Room Four is a nexus to a demonic dimension, and one of its native creatures managed to lay a few eggs in our dimension, and now—“
“Whoa! Whoa, slow down. ‘Nexus to a demonic’ what now?” I glanced between the three kids standing before me, blocking my way to the aforementioned Laundry Room Four.
A fourth kid stood a little ways off, holding some kind of weapon. A slingshot. But it wasn’t aimed at me. It was aimed at the laundry room. Situations like this one was why I usually didn’t do my laundry in the evenings.
“Don’t go in there, Miss Angela,” Flora said. She held one hand up to me. Her other hand was wrapped around the shoulder of the youngest kid, Riley. His older brother, Bowie, was the one stationed outside the laundry room with a slingshot. And then there was their leader…
“Demonic dimension,” Priya said. “Plane of existence. Alternate reality. Whatever you want to call it.”
Flora lowered her hand. “It’s like the thing from the poem that my first grade teacher told us about. ‘There Lived a Crooked Creature.’ Do you know the one? It lives in a corner—“
“—and it can touch us but we can’t touch it—“
“’In a corner it did lay; fourteen eggs every fourteen days.’”
“’Nothing can destroy it. No weapon forged by human hand.’”
“It laid its eggs in the laundry room. In the corner.”
I dropped my basket and held up both my hands to stop them. “Okay, okay, I’m listening. I will listen until you finish telling me everything you want to tell me. Just slow down and…” I pointed to Priya. “…one at a time, please.”
Riley was the one who saw it first. It was about the size of a basketball or soccer ball, kind of a slime-green color but also gray (in his words). And it was lying in the corner of the laundry room. He pointed it out to his mom, who absently glanced in the direction he was pointing, saw nothing, and gave him permission to go bother his brother—or to go see what Bowie was up to (in her words). Before he left to go find his brother, Riley took a final look in the corner. The surface was rough-looking, like the ceiling of their old apartment. He didn’t know the word “stucco.” He reached out to touch the thing, but it flickered and vanished. And when he waved his hand around in the space where it had been lying, he felt nothing.
He told Bowie, who told Flora, who told Priya. And they went to investigate. Like Riley’s mom, they also saw nothing…at first.
But Riley kept insisting that he saw it. After the first time, it didn’t disappear for him. He kept seeing it. And he saw more of the things. So the kids decided to just hang out in and around the laundry all day. Priya brought her notebook so she could record any significant observations. Flora took pictures in case the camera eye caught something their eyes didn’t.
But their eyes did see something at last. When night fell, Flora saw what Riley had seen. She took pictures to show the others, but nothing showed up in the pictures except an empty corner. She didn’t need proof for the others though. They saw what she saw.
But they were the only ones.
When the maintenance guy, Jake, came by to take a look at one of the leaking washers, the kids pointed out the “rock balls” as they called them at the time. Jake didn’t see them. And the kids noticed that the few residents who came in to do their laundry in the evening didn’t see anything either.
They left the laundry room, and stood outside within view of it, so they could speak in private about what their next move should be.
That’s when they saw first saw the creature.
“It wasn’t that big in the poem,” Flora said, gazing off to the side.
I opened my mouth, took a breath, and snapped my mouth shut. I was about to ask—more like suggest—if what they saw could have been an animal. I used to see the occasional opossum when I first moved in. Or it could have been a raccoon, though I’d never seen one of those around the complex.
I took another breath. The sun had dipped below the tree line. It was getting dark fast now. I glanced down at my basket of not-all-that-dirty laundry. Maybe I could get away with waiting another day. “Can you describe what you saw?” I asked.
Priya opened the notebook she had propped in the crook of her elbow and pulled out a sheet of paper. She held it out for me to see. It was a drawing in colored pencil.
The drawing was good, but it was also—
“Don’t go in there!”
I glanced up and saw Bowie stepping in front of someone who was trying to enter the laundry room. I recognized her. It was cat-bed lady.
For me, the scariest thing about the laundry room was the machine closest to the door. One of the residents washed her cat beds in that machine. No one was supposed to put pet-related laundry items in the communal machines, but the resident was elderly, and as long as she only put the cat beds in that one machine, everyone was willing to look the other way. (And to pray that machine never went down.)
Bowie was no match for her. She gently elbowed him aside and went into the laundry room, flicking on the lights. I tipped my head to look through the window, focusing on the corner. I didn’t see anything unusual.
“Maybe she’ll be okay,” Priya said. “We’ve seen other people come and go without being taken.”
I frowned at her. “What?”
“The maintenance man,” Flora said. “The creature took him.”
“Jake? I thought he was out sick,” I said.
Priya shook her head. “When we first saw it, we planned to leave it alone. We didn’t want to threaten it, especially since its protecting its eggs—that’s what those balls are. Parents protecting their young can be vicious, right? We were just keeping an eye on things. And trying to figure out what it was. And maybe…maybe if we could communicate with it.”
“Only you wanted to communicate with it, Pri,” Flora said.
“But we saw it take Jake,” Priya said. “He was trying to fix that washer—we think the creature and the eggs are what broke it in the first place—and then it got him.”
I frowned. “What do you mean by ‘got him’?”
“It took him, and spun him up in some kind of cocoon.”
“Took him? Where?”
They pointed to the laundry room.
I raised my brows. “He’s in there?”
“That’s when we knew we should do something,” Priya said. “We tried to tell my parents. My dad called about Jake. And my mom checked the laundry room but…we don’t have proof. No hairs or poop pellets, no slime, no fangs…no ransom note.”
“All the pictures I took of the abduction are blank. Even Mister Jake doesn’t show up in them,” Flora said. “We think maybe it’s giving off some signal that’s interfering with the camera?”
“Bowie tried firing stones at it, but they went right through,” Priya said. She shook her head. “’No weapon forged by human hand.’ Just like the research says.”
Bowie jogged over to us then. “She wouldn’t listen,” he said. “She went in.”
I glanced over through the open door of the laundry room, where nothing unusual was happening. “Okay, wait. Abduction? That’s a serious thing to claim. What did your parents say about it?”
“Her mom said we must have seen Mister Jake’s friend carrying him off.”
Priya peered at me. “My dad said he’s on something called a ‘bender.’ Is that what I think it is?”
I cleared my throat. “I’m going in to check on, on—“
“Miss Liz,” Flora said.
“—on Miss Liz. Thank you. If something happens,” I added before they could protest, “then you’ll have the proof of my eyewitness observation at least.”
“If you’re going in, you’ll need this,” Bowie said. He pulled a stone from his shirt pocket and held it out to me.
The smooth polished gray-black stone was big enough to just fit in my closed fist. Striations, some of which looked like cracks, crossed each other just below the surface. And even in the dying sunlight, the stone seemed to gleam from within with the iridescent watery blues and misty orange hues of a nebula.
“According to our research,” Priya said, “that stone should provide you with some protection in case you run into the creature.”
Bowie smiled. “My sister used to collect a bunch of rocks and crystals. But then she got over it. She asked if I wanted them before she donated them. Now it’s my collection.”
“Labradorite?” I said, glancing between the kids.
Bowie gaped. “How did you know that? Are you into rocks too?”
I smirked at them. “Do you guys know what I do for a living?”
The kids looked around at each other.
“I teach chemistry and geology at the local community college.” I held up the stone. “One of my favorite lectures is on feldspar minerals.”
Flora’s eyes lit up. “You’re a college professor?”
I slipped the stone into my pocket. “I’ll get it back to you after I go check on Liz. Keep an eye on my basket?”
The kids agreed to watch my laundry basket while I went to investigate their claims.
I entered the laundry room, nodding and smiling politely at cat-bed lady. Good old Liz was just washing her own laundry that day.
“Have you seen a ball?” I asked her, holding my hands apart to mimic holding a ball and indicate its size. “The kids say they lost it somewhere, in here maybe.”
Liz pressed her lips together and shook her head slightly.
Seemed to me she had something to say but wasn’t going to say it.
But I was just trying not to look suspicious as I examined all four corners of the room, kneeling to look under the machines.
All I saw was a tiny rolled up sock that fell behind one of the dryers, which is about what I expected.
I turned and glimpsed a flicker at the corner of my eye.
I turned back. The lights flickered then too.
And now there was something on the floor the far corner.
I recalled the kids’ description of the rock balls, or what they now claimed were eggs.
I stepped toward the ball—the egg—keeping my eye on it, trying not to blink.
The lights flickered again. Behind me, I heard the soft beeps of the washer going on, and the sweep of Liz’s slippers on the tile.
Before me, three more eggs flickered into view. As I watched, several more appeared around it, covered in lint and dust. They lay cradled in the one dark corner of the otherwise well-lit laundry room.
I counted as they appeared before my eyes.
“Fourteen,” I whispered.
The lights blinked off.
They blinked back on, and I heard a cry behind me.
I turned around. That cry had come from Liz. But I couldn’t see Liz.
Someone—something stood between us.
It was almost as tall as the ceiling, because of its stalk-like segmented neck, which was too tall for the room. That neck was bent sideways and up, and a small head with a mane of sandy-grey hair hung from it. But even its shoulders loomed two, three feet above me. Two thick arms hung from its sides. And two bony spindly arms emerged from between its shoulder blades. It didn’t stand on its legs. It was lying on its belly. And its legs were bent beside it, up and down like a…like a cricket.
The creature launched itself forward.
The lights flickered again.
And it was gone. The creature was gone.
Liz was gone.
I blinked and glanced around.
I turned to look at the corner where I’d seen the eggs.
There was nothing there now.
The washer was still on, swishing and churning, still washing Liz’s clothes. I walked up to it, walked around the spot where Liz had been standing, where that thing, that creature had been standing. There was nothing.
No hairs. No disgusting snotty saliva pool on the floor. No blood.
I glanced out of the window. The kids were all standing some distance away, but I could see them looking in, trying to figure out what was happening.
I was about to go out and talk to them, before I came back in again, before I searched in and around and all over to find Liz.
But I saw their mouths drop open and their eyes go wide. Bowie raised his slingshot. Flora pushed Riley behind herself. And Priya took a breath.
I spun around as I heard her muffled cry through the door. “No!”
The creature stood right in front of me I glimpsed its eggs behind it. And I saw two pale gray cocoons hanging from the ceiling. I couldn’t see anything past the surface of the cocoons. But I knew what—who—was inside them.
I saw the creature’s face now. Just how Priya had drawn it. It had no nose, no mouth. Its face was just covered in large hollow red eyes with yellow triangles for pupils. I didn’t want to count, but if I had, I’m sure I would have counted fourteen eyes that blinked out of sync. From the front, I now saw the two bony spindly arms that emerged from the top of its chest, arms that ended in a single hooked digit.
I knew it could see me. But I still moved as slowly as I could when I raised my right foot and leaned my body back.
And then it did to me what it did to Liz.
It leapt at me.
It caught me.
I remembered stumbling and falling and crawling. I remembered getting up and running.
I must have fallen again.
I’d never fallen unconscious before.
So I was completely disoriented when I came to.
It was bright, but I didn’t know if it was night or day.
I heard voices, but I couldn’t tell if they were in my head or outside of it.
I closed my eyes and let a bout of dizziness pass before I opened them again and tried standing.
I looked around, slowly, slowly.
I was outside.
Outside of the laundry room.
I spotted the kids. I had to go to them first. Let them know I was okay. And get them far away from that thing in the laundry room.
I couldn’t believe they’d been just watching it for a week.
When I got close enough, I could make out what they were saying. They were talking about me. They were so engrossed, so distraught probably, that they didn’t notice me approaching.
“One of us has to watch the eggs,” Priya said. “We don’t need to do research to know why it’s collecting people in those cocoons. When those hatchlings are born, they’re going to be hungry.”
“Hey!” Bowie put his hands over his little brother’s ears.
“Are they dead?” Flora asked. “Professor Angela, and…”
“Guys, I’m okay,” I said, walking up to them. I didn’t want to startle them, but I couldn’t let them think I was dead.
“Maybe not,” Priya said. “Some animals eat live food.”
Flora gulped. “I feel sick.”
I reached out to her. “Hey, it’s all right. I’m here. I’m good.” I put my hand on her shoulder.
I felt a weird tension in my hand, the kind of resistance I’d feel if I was trying to bring the same sides of a magnet together. I pushed through it, and with the tips of my fingers, I made contact with Flora’s shoulder.
She recoiled and cried out. “Ow!”
I drew my hand back. By instinct, I looked at the others before I remembered they couldn’t see me. But Bowie was looking right at me. His eyes went wide and he looked right at my eyes. Then he blinked and glanced around, frowning.
“Did you guys just see that?” he asked.
Priya took a step toward me. “Angela?”
Bowie glanced over at the laundry room. “I don’t want to get closer. But I still see three cocoons in there.”
I did get closer. I ran up to the window and looked inside. Bowie was right. There were now three cocoons hanging from the ceiling. And I could see the eggs. Half of them were trembling, and a few were already cracking and chipping.
The eggs were hatching.
The creature was bent over the eggs. One of the supplementary arms on its chest reached over to the nearest cocoon and sliced it open. An unconscious man half fell out of it.
I gasped and hit my hand against the doorknob.
The creature’s stalk-like neck started to swing around. I ducked down. The crooked creature had heard me. I couldn’t risk it seeing me.
Crouching, I returned to the kids.
“Can you see me?” I asked them. “Can you hear me?”
I got my answer when they didn’t respond.
I didn’t try touching any of them again. They’d seen me for a flash, but Flora was still rubbing the spot where I’d touched her shoulder. I hadn’t meant to hurt her, but I had, just by touching her.
So they couldn’t see me or hear me, but they could feel me.
I didn’t get it. I glanced down. I was standing on the ground. I could feel it beneath my feet. I bent down and brought my hand close to a pebble. I didn’t feel that resistance. I picked it up.
Something was familiar about the situation.
Priya was gazing at the pebble. Without a word, she pointed, and the others looked.
For a moment, I could tell that they could see the pebble hovering in the air, but then they lost it. I was still holding it. I lowered it to the ground. Their gazes didn’t follow. I set it down, and then started moving around other pebbles.
This time they saw it.
“Professor Angela, is that you?” Flora asked.
“Oh no,” Bowie said. “Is she…?”
“Not dead,” I said. I didn’t think I was dead anyway.
If I could interact with inanimate physical objects, then I could communicate with the kids through writing. It might not help convince them I wasn’t a ghost, but I had to let them know I was okay, and that they needed to get out of there. And that I would help them. We would figure something out.
At the very least I had to get them away from there. I didn’t know how they were still standing outside that laundry room after everything they’d seen.
I couldn’t let them see those hatchlings feeding on Jake. And on Liz.
But how had I gotten out? That third cocoon was for me.
It wasn’t even broken. I hadn’t broken out of it. Maybe I’d slipped away before the crooked creature put me in it.
But that didn’t make sense. It wrapped its prey in the cocoon after capturing them. I remembered feeling it form around me.
I closed my eyes again and concentrated. I remembered my legs being wrapped together.
I remembered swinging my arms. They passed right through the creature, but when the creature caught my arm, I felt its rough sharp digit grasping my wrist. It could touch me. But I couldn’t touch it.
I had checked my pockets. Sometimes I had a random hair pin or a paper clip. I didn’t know how either would help.
I didn’t have a hair pin or a paper clip. All I had found in my pocket as the cocoon closed around me was a stone.
My eyes went wide and my whole chest rose from the breath of inspiration.
I glanced at all four kids, and I wished they could have heard me when I said, “You little geniuses.”
I knew it would startle them, but I grabbed the notebook from Priya. She cried out when it fell to the floor. I had a notion that if I held onto it too long they would stop being able to see it.
Priya kept a pen clipped inside the active page. I used it to write to them.
This is Angela. I’m not a ghost. I’m alive. You saved me.
“Professor, the eggs are hatching. What do we do?”
“Don’t say ‘run,’” Priya warned. “We want to. But we can’t. We’re the only ones who can see it.”
“How did we save you?” Bowie asked.
“Whoa…our research paid off.” Priya rubbed her forehead.
My guess? It allowed me to phase out of my cocoon, out of laundry room. I was intangible, like creature. But it wore off? Maybe side effects are why you can’t see or hear me, and why memory is hazy, confused. Creature can hear me, probably see me.
“That wasn’t in the research,” Priya said.
Are you sure creature not native? Any way to open portal to its dimension? Send creature back? Close portal?
Priya nodded. “That’s easy. We don’t have to. Every time you see a shadow in the corner that’s the other dimension. The lights flicker because our dimension’s electricity gets disrupted.”
Because it’s one of the fundamental forces. Makes sense. Maybe gravity too, but we don’t feel it. Earth is too big.
“Once it laid its eggs, the creature was able to control the portal,” Priya said. “But even if it wasn’t, even if we could hold it open and close it, we don’t have any way to force it to go through.”
No weapon forged by human hands.
What about the human hands themselves?
I could see that the kids understood what I was saying.
Priya peered down at my words in her notebook. “You’re not planning on doing hand-to-hand combat with the crooked creature, are you?”
Flora glanced between Priya, and the general spot where I was standing. “Is that even possible? Are you sure you could even touch it?”
We heard the sounds of crunching and splintering in the laundry room.
I have to try. Eggs are hatching. Jake and Liz in trouble.
“If you throw one of the eggs into the portal,” Priya said, “the creature won’t close it until it gets the egg back. But…if the portal is open it might mean more creatures coming through.”
How do we close it?
“All the eggs have to go through, and then the creature has to go through. The portal should seal itself once that happens. At least that’s what our research says.”
Flora nodded. “That’s what the poem says too.”
Will you listen to me if I tell you to get out of here?
Priya shook her head. “But we’ll listen if you tell us how we can help.”
“We’ll stay back,” Flora said. She pulled out her phone. “And we’ll call for an ambulance for Mister Jake and Miss Liz.”
I slipped my hand into my pocket, and felt for the stone that I believed had saved my life from the gruesome death of being fed upon by monstrous hatchlings. And now I was voluntarily walking back toward that. I didn’t know how it had worked. Or even if it had worked. Maybe there was some other reason I hadn’t ended up in a cocoon.
I slowly turned the knob and opened the laundry door a crack.
A sharp odor hit me, like rotting mushrooms, ammonia and earth. And it was humid now. The washer was beeping with a reminder for the user to remove their clothing.
The lights were flickering wildly.
The first few eggs had hatched. Small versions of the crooked creature forced their way through the remnants of the shells, and started crawling over the cocoon with poor Jake inside.
I hadn’t seen any mouths. I wondered how they would feed on Jake. But I didn’t want to see it.
I wondered how I’d be able to sneak up on creatures that could turn their heads all the way around and stare at me with their fourteen red eyes.
The shadow in the corner behind the eggs, the cocoons, and the creatures had deepened. I thought I could discern a glisten, as if I were seeing a…skin condensing over the shadow.
The creature loomed over its hatching eggs.
A parent protecting its young. I didn’t stand a chance. Maybe the creature would kill me before I could do anything.
I ran toward the shadowy corner and crouched down. But I didn’t grab one of the eggs.
I grabbed one of the hatchlings. The one that clung to Jake’s arm. I ripped it off and flung it into the shadow.
The glistening skin broke and the shadow swallowed the hatchling.
The crooked creature swung its stalk-like neck toward me.
Until then, the only sound I’d heard was the cracking of the eggs, the shuffling movement of the hatchlings, and a sucking sound. As disturbing as that sucking sound was, it was more unsettling that I couldn’t tell where it was coming from.
The crooked creature’s neck reared before me and split open to reveal a vertical mouth lined with thousands of thorny teeth.
The neck stretched toward me. I swiped my arm and punched it.
My punch connected. I felt that resistance again. And I watched the creature recoil the way that Flora had.
It reached for me with its arms now. Each massive arm that was thicker than my legs. I tried to duck under, but the creature was quicker. One arm reached my shoulder…
…and passed right through me. I clasped both hands together and swung them downward on the creature’s shoulder. I struck it again. And again.
The creature didn’t have a cry. But tears began to drip from some of its eyes. It retreated from me and tried to block me from the eggs and the hatchlings.
I moved past it to the side, to the cocoons. I leapt onto the one with Jake in it, hoping the weight of both our bodies would detach it from the ceiling.
It did. I dropped to my feet, but the cocoon slipped out of my hand.
I leapt on Liz’s cocoon and brought it down too. I managed to hold onto it and lay it down.
I felt a sudden sharp pain on my left calf.
I glanced down. One of the hatchlings had wrapped itself around my ankle and knee and had bit through my jeans, stretching its own stalk-like neck-mouth halfway around my leg.
Something was changing about my intangibility. And I didn’t know how the rules worked. I glanced at the open portal realizing that if the hatchling could touch me, then so could its parent.
A massive arm came swinging toward me.
I ducked out of the way this time.
I heard Jake groaning. The cocoon around him was flickering away.
I tore the hatchling off my leg. The exposed wound burned. A shudder seized my whole body and I dropped the hatchling.
I felt long rough fingers wrap around my ankle and yank.
I was being pulled into the portal.
I wasn’t strong enough to make the crooked creature let me go.
I reached over to the hatchling that was trying to scamper away. My hand went through it at first. But I tried again and grabbed it.
I squeezed its neck. And even though it had just been feeding on me, I winced at the thought I might be hurting it. I eased up. But I put my other hand over the hand that was holding the hatchling by the neck and I tried to make it look like I was strangling it.
“Let go!” I yelled to the crooked creature in the corner.
It unclamped its fingers from my ankles and swept all its eggs into the portal. I released the hatchling and scrambled to my feet, ready to push them all into the portal…even if it meant I’d fall in too. Maybe that stone would protect me.
But I didn’t have to.
The creature blinked its fourteen eyes at me and receded into the shadow.
The lights flickered, steadied, and brightened, casting an unrelenting fluorescent white light into the corner.
A soft beeping made me jerk.
The washer. It was reminding the user again that the cycle was over.
I knelt down and reached for Jake, but didn’t dare take my eyes off the corner. He was breathing, coming to. So was Liz.
The laundry room door burst open and the kids all rushed in.
I smiled at Flora. “You see me?”
She nodded. They all nodded.
“We called an ambulance,” Priya said, staring at the corner with a wince.
“It is gone?” Riley asked. It was the first I’d heard his voice. I was surprised to hear it was gravelly, for a little kid’s voice.
I glanced at the corner. “For now, I think.”
“What if it comes back?”
I shook my head. “Is there such a thing as a bug bomb for a spectral infestation?”
I didn’t tell them about the last look the creature gave me, as if its eyes were marking its memory with me. And I didn’t tell them about the searing pain in my calf that I wasn’t sure a paramedic would even see, much less be able to treat.
“All I know is that was terrifying,” I said. “And I don’t ever want to do that again.” I looked at Priya. “More research. I’ll help. See if there’s some ways we could keep it from coming back.”
“Like putting up traps and stuff?” Flora asked.
I pulled the chunk of labradorite out of my pocket, and offered it back to Bowie.
But he shook his head and said, “I want you to keep it.”
“Oh, we almost forgot.” Priya left the laundry room and walked back in holding my basket.
With a slow, single blink, I sighed at it.
“You never want to do laundry again, do you?” Flora said.
“I don’t, but…” I felt a stirring in my stomach. A growl. “This might sound inappropriate, but while we’re waiting for the ambulance, I’m going to order a few pizzas. I’ve got a craving.” I frowned. “If I got bit by one of those hatchlings, I’m not going to turn into a crooked creature, am I?”
“We didn’t see anything about that in our research,” Priya said. “But we can double-check.”
“Why?” Flora asked. She turned her face aside. “Is it not normal for you to crave pizza?”
“Actually, you guys should start worrying if I ever stop craving pizza.”
“We’ve learned a lot about you today, Professor,” Flora said.
Despite all the conflicting sensations and emotions I felt—the pain, doubt, worry, relief—I smiled a genuinely happy smile at hearing her call me by that title.
This cycle was over.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel