Between the Rows
An Upcoming Supernatural Fiction Novel
A book fell off the end cap one row over, yanking Wren away from the novel she read. She looked up. Something pale disappeared past the shelf of books.
She got up from her seat and picked up the fallen tome, placing it back where it belonged as she glanced down the row. The same pale something rounded the corner and slipped out of sight. She stiffened—her brain didn’t quite register what she saw, but it didn’t walk on two legs.
Soft steps disturbed the quiet of the adjacent aisle like the paw-pad rhythm of a cat across a tile floor, but louder, and then louder still.
It must be a service animal. A dog, of course. Wren furrowed her brow—whatever she had seen was coming back toward her. The rhythm of the steps was off somehow, like there were too many feet. She took slow steps into the aisle ahead, feeling more secure with a shelf of heavy books on each side of her.
A smell eked through the spaces in the books as the strange footsteps on the other side of the aisle ceased. It wasn’t noticeable at first, but when she took a deliberate sniff it hit her: burnt hair and ammonia.
A low, throaty rumble rippled the air. Wren pressed her lips together. Of course this would happen now, she thought. Wren’s symptoms hadn’t been so intense since early high school. She remembered her medication in her kitchen junk drawer, the ones that rattled accusingly when she ignored them during her morning routine.
The stench intensified. Wren heard her hallucination on the other side of the bookshelf lick its chops wetly.
She clenched her jaw. If things are this bad all of a sudden, I’ll have to suck it up take them, deal with the side effects as they come. I’ll make it work.
The hallucination gave another rolling breath and began walking, its weird pace indicated it was rounding the corner again and headed toward Wren. She stomped angrily down her aisle, leaving her books and even her purse behind. A thick snort sounded behind her, but she kept her stride even. She wouldn’t turn back to look at it, she told herself. It wasn’t real.
Even when she was small, her imagined monsters never so much as glanced at her, anyway, except for that last one. Another snort blasted behind her, this time angry and trumpeting. Wren ignored it again.
Across a row of reading tables was the graphic novel section. She would distract herself there until the hallucination wore away and left only faint scents and shadows. Wren passed between an empty chair and an older man in a ball cap and ill-fitting Jimmy Buffet shirt. He sniffed loudly and muttered under his breath.
She looked back at him and nearly choked. Her hallucination, an eight-legged, furless and catlike thing loomed over him, sitting on the table she had just passed. Flesh hung like curtains down its neck and between its legs. The cascades of skin concealed wherever the hell its mouth was supposed to be. Its ears appeared gnawed away, leaving only fleshy protrusions around the ear canals on the sides of its head. Three pairs of pearly eyes lined the length of its snout. Its oversized nose dripped with grey fluid that reeked the horrible odor she had noticed.
The creature had been leering into the man’s face, but once Wren’s gaze lingered a second too long, it turned its head toward her.
“Can I help you?” the man asked, clearly annoyed.
“Sorry,” she blurted, unable to take her eyes off the hallucination.
As much as she told herself it wasn’t there, the heat and smell radiating from it made her muscles tense in preparation to run. She managed to turn her gaze to the man. He glared at her from under his ball cap.
“I just… just smelled something,” Wren said, frozen.
“You saying that stink is from me?” He glowered. Wren shook her head. From the corner of her eye, she saw the monster hunker down. Its shoulders rolled as its focus sharpened.
“You can smell it?”
“You can smell it?” Wren’s words felt small in her mouth, but her heart enlarged with fear.
“You forget to shower or something?” the man spat back.
The pale beast’s tail flicked an inch from the man’s face. Oversized paws stretched and tensed, revealing silvery, retractable claws. They clacked against the varnished tabletop. The ripples of flesh on the creature’s face stiffened.
A chime sounded; another patron entered the bookstore. The monster’s head snapped around, all eyes widening.
Wren bit the inside of her cheek and headed toward the graphic novels. The eight-legged rhythm of the monster started up again behind her. Wren hoped the sound might trail off toward the entrance of the store, and that her hallucination would dissipate with distraction. In the meantime, she tried to rationalize how the man could smell what she smelled.
Maybe there was a gas leak. Maybe the stench mixed with my stress and made some new thing to imagine. She picked up a comic book and began leafing through it.
As the monster’s pacing faded, the familiar one-two step of a human’s stride approached. The sound cut through the air. Her eyes scanned words on the page without comprehending them. The footsteps distracted her as they came nearer, but then they stopped. Wren kept her head low but glanced up.
A tall, male figure stood at the end of the aisle. She looked back to the book to avoid staring, but ended flicking her eyes up again. The man stood a little closer texting on his phone. Dark hair hung near his eyes as his thumbs bounced on the touch screen. He seemed oblivious to her or the obscene smell that burned in her nostrils.
Wren sighed in relief. Her episode must have dissipated. With the comic under her arm, she turned to make her way back to the pile of books she abandoned moments earlier. But then she felt something yank the compendium from her elbow. Wren whirled around.
“The Far-Reaching Tentacles of N’rygoth?” The tall man inspected the cover. “An interesting choice.”
“Excuse you!” Wren said hotly and snatched the comic back.
Before she could turn on her heel and stick her nose in the air, the stranger drew closer. His shoulders hunched forward, and he loomed over her.
“Pardon me for noticing how appropriate your reading selection is considering your circumstances, little bird.”
Wren blinked. Her stomach turned
“I’m not the one you need to worry about,” he said. “Listen.”
She didn’t. Wren turned and power walked away.
He’s just another hallucination, she reasoned. It hasn’t ended, but at least it isn’t as severe as—then she heard it again. The cat monster gave a rolling breath and began its eight-legged rhythm.
It crept toward Wren as she passed the man in the Jimmy Buffet shirt.
The paw-pad beat of the pale beast had ceased once she passed it. Relief hovered in her heart, but it wasn’t quite ready to settle. It wanted proof her hallucination had dismissed itself before washing over her.
She glanced past her shoulder and froze.
The pale beast had hunkered down on the older man’s table again, this time ready to spring. Before Wren could jump out of the way, it pounced, flinging the table back with the power of its many legs.
“What the hell?” the older man yelled, staring at the toppled table.
The creature pinned Wren down, crushing her shoulders. It paid no attention to the man’s outburst, but pressed harder into Wren.
Heat pooled over her. Its breath burned in her nose as she tried pushing against its chest. Hanging flesh swallowed her hands like hot dough sticking to her fingers. She found nothing solid to push against or injure, no ribs or organs. The monster crouched lower, pearlescent eyes meeting hers.
“Help!” she coughed out as one pair of paws pushed down on her chest, another on her thighs.
“Crazy bitch!” the man shouted, his footsteps punctuating the air as he darted away. A part of Wren stung at the insult, but she realized that the man still must not have seen whatever she was seeing. She must have been flailing on the floor in the shop, screaming at nothing. But being crazy was better than being dinner for a melting monster, no matter how real it seemed.
She stared her hallucination down, still terrified but facing it regardless.
“You’re not real,” she said, struggling to speak under its weight. “It’s not real.”
The pale beast’s muzzle began to crinkle. The rows of eyes narrowed, then began to seethe with a sticky, ultramarine substance. Paws kneaded mercilessly, their claws pricked her, leaving lingering stings.
A fissure crackled down the center of its face, cleaving it open. In the center of the face, a dark organ twitched sporadically, dripping more of the terrible blue ooze. Something boomed wordlessly within the terrified hollow of Wren’s stomach. In a second, she understood the creature wouldn’t kill her. It would undo her, unspool her like cheap twine. The message in her gut repeated over and over, replacing her pulse.
Wren felt herself dissolving. Her voice dried within her throat. Part of her tried to relax and remember she was only having a bad episode. It was all fixable if she could just stay calm until it passed and get to a doctor. But then her arms refused to move properly. She couldn’t pull herself away or push against the monster.
Were her arms even moving? Wren couldn’t tell anymore. Time ached by.
The burning smell choked her reason. Maybe this really is happening, she managed to think. Fear lit up in her. The creature made a noise that sounded like laughter. It stared into Wren as another painful moment creaked by. The next second, it snapped its head up.
She couldn’t turn her head to see. It laughed again, this time soundlessly, the chortle echoing in her bones rather than her ears, mirthless humor echoing in the cavern of her fear. Somehow, she also felt the suggestion of a person, a sonogram silhouette in her gut.
But then the creature eased back from Wren. Something had distracted the beast, daring to challenge the predator as it crouched over its prey. Her voice and muscle control returned with a rush. An involuntary yelp escaped her throat. Her legs spasmed as her own thoughts returned, fear no longer stunning her but motivating her to slip out from under the monster.
The pale beast slammed a paw back down, managing to stab her left shoulder with two claws. Wren screamed, but the monster remained focused on the intruder. The pressure of its presence still burned in Wren’s belly.
She strained, but finally craned her neck to see. A handful of onlookers had gathered at the edges of the bookshelves—she knew the beast hadn’t laughed at them. The tall man who had yanked her book away earlier stood off to the side of the crowd. He glared right at the beast.His expression was calm—no, slack. It was hard for her to focus on the details, but his limp face unnerved her. His cheek twitched and his lips started moving.
“Run straight home, Wren,” she heard and felt all at once, like a hiss of air through her own throat. “Don’t stop for anything.”
The monster’s soundless laughing grew into an audible rumble again.